02/19/2004 12:00AM

Beat the Magna 5 with multiple tickets

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ARCADIA, Calif. - So you are going to play the Magna Five. If you are like most horseplayers, you will spend a good deal of time handicapping the five races and precious little time structuring your wager.

Perhaps your approach works. Perhaps your handicapping skills are so razor-sharp that a cookie-cutter wagering technique is just fine. Most serial-type wagers are played that way, anyhow.

First, find a single. Then go two horses deep in one race, three-deep in another, four-deep in a more difficult race, and five-deep in the toughest of all. That was easy. The costly strategy is complete. The ticket goes like this: 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120 combinations. At $2 each, it's a $240 play. Are you really going to spend that much? Of course you're not. You don't have to.

For many handicappers, multiple-race wagers are difficult because they require a few minutes to be structured intelligently. There is nothing particularly smart about failing to distinguish between legitimate contenders and ambiguous outsiders.

Consider the race where five horses are used and whether it is reasonable to spend equal amounts on these horses: Three are solid contenders based on fundamental considerations of condition, class, speed, and pace. The other two are inconspicuous and may include an outclassed horse with a potential pace advantage, or a longshot making its first start since being gelded.

A bettor who plays just one ticket and merely uses all five horses in the race is spending the same amount on the genuine contenders as he is on the borderline outsiders. There is a more sensible way to play, but it requires some work and practice.

The multiple-race strategy is referred to as "top-and-bottom." A pencil and a sheet of paper are used to separate horses into two groups - main contenders on top and borderline (backup) horses on the bottom.

Columns for each of the five races are drawn across the top of the page, labeled by race. Under the heading for each race, leading contenders are listed. Those are the horses listed on "top." The secondary horses are listed on the "bottom." Based on this layout, five separate pick five tickets will be filled out.

The procedure compels one to differentiate between the leading contenders around which the bet will be centered and the secondary runners that allow a bettor to stay alive if a main horse does not win. In the example, there are substitute (backup) horses in four of the five legs. The bet would cost $240 if every horse was included on one ticket.

By using backup horses in four of the five legs, the cost is trimmed by almost half, to $126. The top-and-bottom technique allows a bettor to "miss" one leg with a backup horse.

The first ticket includes just the top horses, on the top row: 1 with 7 with 5, 6 with 3, 8, 9 with 4, 6, 9. (This is 18 combinations, a cost of $36.)

A second ticket includes top horses in all but the second leg, which uses the backup horse: 1 with 5 with 5, 6 with 3, 8, 9 with 4, 6, 9. (This is 18 combinations, a cost of $36.)

A third ticket includes top horses in all but the third leg, which uses the backup horse: 1 with 7 with 7 with 3, 8, 9 with 4, 6, 9. (This is nine combinations, a cost of $18.)

A fourth ticket includes top horses in all but the fourth leg, which uses the backup horse: 1 with 7 with 5, 6 with 2 with 4, 6, 9. (This is six combinations, a cost of $12.)

A fifth ticket includes top horses in all but the fifth leg, which uses two backup horses: 1 with 7 with 5, 6 with 3, 8, 9 with 1, 10. (This is 12 combinations, a cost of $24.)

The total investment is "only" $126. Obviously, there are thousands of variations to the above strategy. Bettors who make use of the multiple-ticket technique will have a head start over the flat, single-ticket approach.

The choices are simple. Attempt to overpower the Magna Five by sheer volume of dollars. Or, play the bet with equal parts of handicapping intellect and wagering finesse.