05/20/2004 12:00AM

An alternative to the overbet hero


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Faced with a legitimate odds-on favorite, horseplayers have several choices.

Option 1: Risk nothing and merely pass the race. No shame, no penalty.

Option 2: Accept the inevitable and bet the favorite to win, and surrender at the going takeout rate.

Option 3: Accept the inevitable and key the favorite in an exotic wager, and surrender at a higher takeout rate on exotics.

Finally, one can reject the obvious and back a different horse, making a bet that most likely will lose. It's a strategy with no safe middle ground, suitable equally for stubborn fools and creative risk-takers. Which are you? Does any strategy make sense when Smarty Jones tries to win the Triple Crown in two weeks?

The questions are relevant beyond the Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones will be the most closely watched horse in the country on June 5, but probably not the only odds-on favorite. The manner in which a bettor deals with Smarty Jones reveals plenty about his personal strategy regarding odds-on favorites. Eventually, bettors must learn how to cope with heavy chalk.

If there is a flaw to Smarty Jones's apparent dominance, it is strictly a nit-pick. That is, all three of his graded stakes wins were accomplished on unusual racing surfaces. The Derby was run on a sloppy-track Churchill Downs quagmire; the 11-length margin of victory in the Preakness suggests the other horses struggled with the Pimlico surface; the Arkansas Derby win was accomplished over a muddy track at Oaklawn.

Yet to downgrade Smarty Jones is to wrongly discount his previous achievements. Smarty Jones runs fast everywhere, and is likely to run fast and win the Belmont, too. But his odds will be short; 2-5 is no bargain.

A pass-the-race wagering strategy eliminates possibility of error. Sometimes winning is a matter of not losing. It is acceptable, often encouraged, to employ the "prevent defense" when a horse looks this imposing. A common mistake is betting too many races. A fan that watches the Belmont without a wager can enjoy the race while detached from monetary risk. Nothing wrong with that.

The second option is to follow the crowd and bet the standout anyway. Fine, go ahead. But few bettors generate long-term profit by wagering on low-odds horses. Still, for many, it makes no difference if the potential reward does not justify the risk. Give them sharp horses that fit at the class, have appropriate speed figures, and are suited by the likely pace. Let the odds be damned.

A bettor can key odds-on favorites in an exotic wager, which only makes sense if accompanied by an opinion on the second part of the bet that is shared by few. A Belmont exacta combining Smarty Jones and Rock Hard Ten hardly qualifies. It's the outcome that most will expect. The right time to key an underlay in an exotic wager is when one envisions an outcome that is unexpected by most others.

The Preakness provides an example. Vulnerable second and third choices Lion Heart and Imperialism ran out, and the $2 exacta from odds-on Smarty Jones to fresh Rock Hard Ten paid a fat $24.60; the $2 trifecta returned $177.20 when Eddington clunked up for third.

Assuming that Rock Hard Ten starts as the deserving second choice in the Belmont, it will be difficult to squeeze value out of an exacta with Smarty Jones. That is, unless one considers Rock Hard Ten vulnerable. It is possible Rock Hard Ten is the West Coast version of Tapit - overrated and a colt who promises more than he delivers. Either way, Belmont strategy precludes a win bet on Smarty Jones, or an exotic wager that combines the favorite and second choice, Rock Hard Ten.

It leads to the third, unpatriotic alternative and requires wagering against one of the most popular horses in recent history. Smarty Jones is homemade, a genuine horse with genuine connections. From Pennsylvania to Arkansas to Kentucky to New York, Smarty Jones is easy to cheer for. But he is not invincible. No horse is.

It only makes sense to wager against a standout underlay when there is a sensible alternative. Smarty Jones will be underlaid in the Belmont. And at least in theory, his popularity will create overlays among the others - horses whose odds are higher then their chances to win.

When he ran in the Preakness, Rock Hard Ten had not raced in six weeks. He threw a fit at the gate while refusing to be loaded. He raced five wide and six wide, in the virtual parking lot, most of the trip. He cut inside and made a run at the leaders into the lane, then flattened out but held second. All in all, it was a sensational performance. Though he lost by more than 11 lengths, the exaggerated margin does not account for what Rock Hard Ten did before losing his punch.

A large, strapping colt with more speed than he used in the Preakness, Rock Hard Ten will benefit by two additional factors in the Belmont - an aggressive strategy and the wide, sweeping turns of Belmont Park.

Only a stubborn fool would predict Smarty Jones will lose the Belmont to Rock Hard Ten. But there is a chance of that happening. At odds of 8-1, a risk-taker must step up and bet Rock Hard Ten to win. Even if it is a bet that most likely will lose.