10/18/2005 11:00PM

Basic Cup Day goal: Make money

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PHILADELPHIA - With the Breeders' Cup pre-entries now released and the big event about a week away, it is time to consider strategy. This used to be the time when I would stop listening and keep my own counsel. Eventually, I grew up.

Now, I listen. I watch. I ask questions. I evaluate. Come Cup Day next Saturday, I will make decisions.

The other day, a friend reminded me of something I often forget. Take some short cuts. Don't over prepare.

Now that may sound like bad advice until you consider how all of us get so caught up in the minutiae that we forget the object of this whole exercise: to make money.

It is why any form of gambling is so fascinating. There really is no ambiguity. You either have more money than you started with. Or you don't.

My plan is simple and complicated at the same time. I hope to find a few live horses on the card and then try to construct bets around them. I will put my money in the pools where I give myself the best chance to make the most money if one or more of my opinions is correct.

Back in May, I detailed how I played the Kentucky Derby superfecta. I thought only Afleet Alex or Bellamy Road could win. And I liked Alex three times as much as I liked Bellamy Road. I played it that way with Alex atop 75 percent of my tickets.

My longshot bomb was Giacomo. I thought the horse had no chance to win and bet it that way. You know the rest of that story.

Deciding which horses you like obviously matters, but, if you can't get that part right on a reasonably consistent basis, you are in the wrong game. Once you make the first decision, the next decision is way more critical.

There were several people who hit the $864,253 (for $1) Derby super by sheer luck. But I did hear one story about a player who had a plan, a bankroll, and the courage of his convictions.

Like me, he loved Afleet Alex. He also had a better plan and a bigger bankroll. He used Alex first, second, third, and fourth with the field. He was hoping for a bomb or two to run with Alex. He got three bombs, three big bombs, a dream scenario.

His bet cost $23,256. The return was that same $864,253. The math works this way in a 20-horse field like the Derby-19x18x17=$5,814x4 (for Alex in each of the four spots). By the way, if you wanted to wheel the field in the Derby, you would have gotten a nice return on your investment of $116,280 (20x19x18x17).

The 2005 Derby, of course, is an extreme example of what can either almost go right or actually go right.

The Breeders' Cup, with its overloaded fields, is an opportunity. It demands handicapping skills, but it is very much like a final exam. If you have not been paying attention during the entire course, no amount of cramming is going to help. If you are trying to catch up now, you will find yourself with too little time to formulate the bets that have the potential to move you up several income brackets.

If you really cared about getting this right, you would have been watching the important races all year long. You would have been reading what the trainers and jockeys have been saying. You would have been playing out imaginary races in your mind.

If you have to spend any time looking at the past performances of, say, Saint Liam or Lost in the Fog, you have issues. If you don't have some sort of handle on at least half the horses entered in these races, you will end up spending too much time on the minutiae.

You may even find something nobody else knows, but, even if you do, the same question will linger. Can it help you win any money? If you don't know the answer to that question, you are looking in the wrong place. This game is as complex as we make it. It is just that simple.