03/13/2002 12:00AM

Backing the little guys good for more than the soul

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I had a vision the other day - not a life-changing spiritual one, but a moving image that seemed straight out of Hollywood.

I pictured an unheralded longshot from humble beginnings winning the Kentucky Derby. I pictured the horse being ridden by Tony D'Amico and trained by Jay Robbins.

This little-known horse, whom no one gave a chance, circled the field, and in the final stride upset favored Repent and jockey Jerry Bailey.

Then I came to my senses.

Such an underdog success story would seem fitting - and I'm sure it could occur if D'Amico and Robbins were given the necessary stock - but it isn't going to happen. Life isn't a Rocky movie.

But I for one like supporting and betting on the small guys, the underdogs. It's enjoyable, and it can lead to overlays. Better yet, you don't feel bad, like when you collect a $2.80 win ticket on Repent and Bailey in the Louisiana Derby.

Ninety-percent of the time, horses, not jockeys, win races. The other half, as Yogi Berra might say, is the jockey.

Let there be no doubt - Bailey is a brilliant rider, the best in the country. Any horse is lucky to have Bailey on his back. From a business perspective, it is understandable why trainer Ken McPeek and owners Jerry and Feye Bach chose to replace D'Amico with Bailey aboard Repent. Bailey is fluid, strong, and smart. He received my Eclipse vote for outstanding jockey of 2001, and he deserved to win the Eclipse in a landslide.

Of course, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. That is the problem. Everyone knows he is great.

So I'll tell you something you don't know. Care to guess what the return on investment is on Bailey at the betting windows in 2001-2002? A loss of 20 percent on the dollar, or in other terms an average return of $1.60 for a $2 bet.

That's a greater loss than the takeout on a rider who is at the very top of his sport and winning at a 25 percent rate.

By contrast, D'Amico is winning at a 9 percent rate this year. But if you had bet all of his mounts this year, you would have made a profit.

Of course, the connections of Repent aren't in this to cash a ticket. They want their horse to win races, important races. I'm sure they couldn't care less if he pays $2.10 for the remainder of his career. As long as Repent pays them on the first Saturday in May, I'm sure that will be fine with them.

Like D'Amico, Robbins has shown a significant profit for bettors, while operating a small stable in Southern California. Few can forget that he became the first trainer to saddle a back-to-back winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic when Tiznow won a thriller last fall.

Yet because he and Tiznow's co-owner Michael Cooper have parted company, he won't be training Tizbud, Tiznow's younger, unraced sibling. That's a significant blow to any trainer, much less one that operates a small stable.

Despite their misfortune, D'Amico and Robbins have handled their situations publicly with class, expressing their disappointment without crying in their beers.

I can't help but think optimistically that some day their resiliency will be rewarded. In the meantime I'll root for them - for more reasons than their profitability at the betting windows.