07/09/2007 11:00PM

Big race days, big scores

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The two toughest beats of my horse playing career have occurred in huge pick sixes at Hollywood Park several years apart.

The first was a nose defeat for the whole pool in excess of $1 million when the Hollywood placing judges needed several minutes to determine that my horse's nose was a few millimeters short of the wire than the eventual winner's.

The other occurred on Monday, July 2, the day Hollywood's $3.2 million four-day carryover was the focus of national attention. In some ways this played out as if it were a videotape replay of my previous bad beat.

Going into the last race in the $10.8 million pick six sequence, I had three horses alive: the 2, Oh Shine, which was going to pay $250,000; the 7, Reflex, worth a potential $340,000; and the 14, Cool Hand Luca, the 5-2 betting favorite, for a possible $75,000.

Those who saw this race might remember that Oh Shine took the lead on the backstretch, inched clear on the turn, repelled rivals in the upper stretch to open up four lengths between calls inside the final furlong. That's when a first-time starter, the 9, Extreme Notice - trained by Paddy Gallagher, who rarely has first-timers ready to fire - hit his best stride from midpack to rally down the center of the track and nail my horse in the final stride, right on the wire.

Three consolation tickets worth an aggregate $6,700 hardly were any consolation. At the bottom line, let's just say that I replayed the final 40 yards of that race in my mind's eye at least 40 times in my five-hour drive back to Las Vegas after a weekend at Hollywood.

At the same time, the huge personal disappointment was accompanied by a crystal-clear thought worth sharing here. It's a thought that underscores why we bother to play this game despite such agonizing defeats and despite a rampant culture of drug use for racing purposes; a seemingly inscrutable period of adjustment to synthetic tracks; exorbitant takeouts and unfair tax liabilities imposed by the IRS on significant winnings; internal industry squabbles for market share and account wagering revenues; far too much racing from coast to coast 12 months a year; and other head-scratching issues that are blunting progress from coast to coast.

The crystal-clear thought was this: There are dozens of great opportunities to make serious money each year. Most of them occur away from one's own home track, where the general trend is short prices in short fields and chaotic outcomes in cheap races for horses who go in and out of form at a moment's notice.

For me, there are better opportunities for good scores in better-grade races on specific, high-profile racing days.

I refer to Kentucky Derby Day and the other Triple Crown racing days; the supporting cards on those days; the prep race cards leading up to the Derby, Travers, Arlington Million and Pacific Classic cards; Breeders' Cup preview stakes days at Keeneland, Santa Anita, and Belmont Park; Claiming Crown Day at Canterbury or Ellis Park; along with many terrific cards during the Saratoga meet and a scattering of great, beautifully put together cards at Del Mar, Calder, Monmouth and other tracks on their best days of the season.

While I believed for a long time that it was imperative to follow a given circuit closely to gain an insider's edge, I do not find that to be true in the age of simulcasting and oversized betting pools for televised and highly publicized racing days.

In today's world, with the Internet, Television Games Network and HorseRacing TV, astute players can gain significant handicapping insights from selective viewing and reviewing of major races anywhere. And we all know how much pertinent statistical data is available in the expanded Daily Racing Form past performance profiles and other contemporary resources.

In today's world we have DRF's Formulator 4.1 and dozens of valuable, information-based web sites that do in-depth statistical analysis that took months to compile a decade ago. At the bottom line, today's horseplayer can cultivate an arsenal of potent handicapping angles as well as a long list of high-quality horses racing far from home base. Moreover, it also is possible to spot talented trainers enjoying breakout years (such as Larry Jones, trainer of Hard Spun), or extremely talented new jockeys and improving veterans such as Alan Garcia, Joe Talamo, and Michael Baze, who still get above-average prices while the general public continues to underrate their value to win-hungry trainers.

During the summer, astute observers who focus on Saratoga and Del Mar will be able to build catalogs of promising juveniles for future maiden races, allowances, and stakes, many of which will be contested on high-profile racing days in Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, New York and California. During the fall, some of those youngsters will show their preference for longer races, which will pay dividends next spring.

During the winter, late-developing horses from last year's 3-year-old crop will give early hints of their ability to handle older horses in graded stakes.

During the spring, we will see plenty of Triple Crown and Oaks nominees expose their distance limitations, which will pay dividends when their connections realistically seek better spots in sprints. A truly great example of this occurred on the 2007 Belmont stakes undercard when sprinter-miler Teuflesberg was a two length winner at 8-1 in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens stakes. Every year, this longshot pattern repeats itself in sprint races for 3-year-olds who were hampered by the distances of Triple Crown races.

Likewise, the modern game also provides a long list of lucrative handicapping contests at dozens of racetracks, race books, offtrack betting outlets and websites throughout the year. One such contest is going on this weekend at Autotote's Bradley offtrack betting facility near Hartford, Conn. It is my experience that the most successful contest players are those with a broad-based knowledge of several major circuits rather than deep-rooted insights into one's home track.

Of equal potential value are the multi-race exotic pools that usually are a part of high profile stakes days. These are in fact, the bread and butter of my own game, which - despite several tough beats that can be added to the two mentioned earlier - I find ample reasons to pursue the next big score.

Big scores are the answer, and they most often present themselves on big racing days in different regions of the country several times a month.