01/29/2003 12:00AM

An all-purpose theory for bounce believers

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PHILADELPHIA - What Tampa Bay just did in the NFL playoffs demonstrated what might be one of the most powerful forces in handicapping. And it is hardly limited to sports betting. It absolutely applies to horse racing, which is where I first noticed it.

When Tampa pulverized San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs, anybody with a brain knew the Bucs were going to bounce when they showed up at Veterans Stadium to play the favored Eagles in the NFC championship game.

While everybody else was talking about the Eagles' recent dominance of the Bucs and the cold weather in Philadelphia, I paid no attention to those factors. Tampa, I knew for certain, had won too easily against the 49ers. The Bucs had played their best game. It was not going to happen again.

So what happened? The Bucs played even better. They dominated the favored Eagles. The last football game at the Vet left the woebegone Philadelphia fans even more numb than usual. In a game the fans or the players could not imagine losing, the Eagles got overwhelmed.

The Bucs had beaten a better opponent in a tougher place than they did in the first round of the playoffs. They did it with style. They made big plays against a team that never gave up big plays.

So what did it all mean? It meant the Bucs were a lock in the Super Bowl.

Why? Let's call it the "no bounce so tap out next time" theory.

Whenever you are absolutely certain a horse can't possibly do better than a most recent performance and the horse does, in fact, run even better, what you have is a certified phenomenon.

This is even better if you have bet your money against that horse in the second race. If you know the horse can't run well and he does, that horse is telling you something. That horse is telling you that you can get your money back with major interest in his next start.

I've seen it happen dozens of times, mostly at the higher levels of the sport.

I have never pretended to understand all the bounce theories of the sheets players. While I certainly have respect for how they play the game, it is not my way.

What I know is what I know. And the Bucs, like some horses, had found the secret, whatever that might be.

Tampa was getting points from Oakland. The Bucs were a live underdog under any circumstance. Under these circumstances, they seemed very live.

Oakland, of course, had been equally dominant in the playoffs. The difference is that the Raiders figured to dominate. They did exactly what was expected.

So, did I bet on the Bucs in the Super Bowl? Not a cent.

That comes under another theory entirely. Why agonize for three hours trying to turn $1 into $2 when you could be at the track and, in barely a minute, you could try to turn $1 into $1,000 or more.

Did I really expect the Bucs to crush the Raiders? No. But the "no bounce . . ." theory told me all I needed to know. So why did I tell my friends I liked the Raiders? I forgot my own theory until just before halftime. Which is yet another reason why I limit my action to the track.