04/08/2004 12:00AM

Bargains still available for Derby


This Saturday's three big prep races - the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, and Arkansas Derby - will be the last chance for futures bettors to see most of the Kentucky Derby contenders.

In all, 13 of the 22 3-year-olds in last weekend's Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool and 14 of the 25 on Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch list will be running.

When the parimutuel Future Wager was started in 1999, the pools were scheduled to coincide with the biggest prep race weekends. Bettors could compare the current odds in Las Vegas's fixed-odds futures and try to snatch up any remaining value, that is, if everyone else didn't jump on the bandwagon before the pools closed.

After the first two Future Wagers, the final pool in 2001 was moved up a week - coinciding with the Santa Anita Derby - to avoid the Easter holiday and has stayed there ever since. The roles are now reversed and futures bettors here can now go to school on the final Future Wager odds to search out value in fixed-odds futures around town, including all of the Caesars Entertainment properties (Las Vegas-based Caesars Palace, Bally's Paris, Flamingo, Las Vegas Hilton, and networked books in the Reno/Tahoe area and down in Laughlin), Circus Circus books (Excalibur, Luxor, Monte Carlo, and Circus Circus both in Vegas and Reno), and the Imperial Palace.

With no superhorse stepping to the head of the class and with so many longshots winning prep races, the Derby is as wide open as ever. That was reflected last weekend when the Pool 3 of the Future Wager closed with the entry of "all others" as the 6-1 favorite, the first time in the six years of the last pool that an individual entry wasn't favored.

John Avello, who sets the horse racing odds for all of the Caesars Entertainment properties from his office at Bally's Las Vegas, says it's his job to be on top of the daily Derby doings and beat the players to the punch. As such, there is little value on the top contenders.

"You can't play the favorites that are running this weekend," Avello said, citing horses such as Lion Heart (8-1), Eddington (8-1), Preachinatthebar (8-1), Action This Day (12-1), and Master David (12-1). "It's hard to play 8-1 or 12-1 horses before these races because if they run poorly you'll get a better price on Derby Day."

"Of course," he continued with a laugh, "the way things are going, if they run good you still might get a better price on Derby Day.

"Because of that, I don't anticipate that we'll be adjusting odds before the running of Saturday's races. If we haven't adjusted to where they should be, shame on us."

But value is in the eye of the beholder, and Avello is quick to point out that good prices are still available on potential Derby-bound horses.

Sinister G still available at huge odds

"I'm bookmaking, but I also have an opinion," Avello said. "The fact that everyone is talking about horses like Sinister G and Smarty Jones as contenders shows how wide open the field is. They're getting respect because no one's out front."

Call him a "smarty pants," but Avello puts his odds where his mouth is. Sinister G, who closed the Future Wager at 64-1 last weekend, was still at 175-1 at Bally's as of Wednesday night. Part of the reason for the high odds is that Avello hasn't written very many tickets on Sinister G, despite his upset win in the Lane's End, and thus doesn't have any future-book liability on him. Avello isn't able to be as aggressive with Smarty Jones because the son of Elusive Quality has been a popular bet. Bally's has Smarty Jones, who closed at 10-1 in the Future Wager and is the morning-line favorite for the Arkansas Derby, at 12-1.

Conversely, a lot of people have gotten off the St Averil bandwagon after his sixth-place finish as the favorite last Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby. He had been as low as 12-1 at Bally's in recent weeks, but was raised to 30-1 last weekend. Avello said there's a fine line between being fair to the customers and protecting his own bottom line.

"When booking Derby futures," Avello said, "you have to raise the odds after a race like that. It's just the right thing to do, but you have to be careful because one bad race doesn't mean he's not still a quality horse."

Avello said he expects that if bettors do take a chance with wagers before Saturday's races that it will be on outsiders that could sneak into the Derby field with big performances. As an example, he cited 100-1 longshot Cuba, who is expected to go off as the biggest price in the Wood.

A glance at the entries in the three big Saturday races show the opportunity for some other flyers.

* Wood Memorial: Consecrate (125-1 at Bally's), Swingforthefences (100-1), Little Matth Man (60-1), and Royal Assault (400-1), who trainer Nick Zito has said is aiming for the Belmont but is at a great price if you think he can convince Zito otherwise.

* Blue Grass: That's an Outrage (500-1), Breakaway (100-1), Mustanfar (25-1).

* Arkansas Derby: Hasslefree (400-1), Purge (75-1), Shadowland (60-1).

Several prospects run next week

Of course, if you really want to go out on a limb, there are still juicy prices available on Derby hopefuls who don't run until the Coolmore Lexington Stakes next Saturday, including the most likely candidate, Minister Eric (25-1), as well as Fire Slam (200-1), Pomeroy (200-1), Saratoga County (200-1), and Quintons Gold Rush (50-1).

Avello said he expects a surge of action after each of the races this Saturday and he will be quickly dropping odds of the top finishers while raising odds on horses who don't fare well. It has been a crazy two months in the Kentucky Derby preps, but Avello said he thinks the cream will rise to the top this weekend.

"If Eddington runs huge, he could be the horse that everyone gets on," Avello said. "Or maybe it'll be Action This Day or Lion Heart. This week is going to tell us a lot."