02/01/2002 1:00AM

Blind squirrels get big acorn


NEW YORK - There were 48 teams of four members each in last weekend's National Handicapping Championship, but the winning team figured a lot higher than 47-1. Even 147-1 might have been an underlay.

No disrespect is herein intended toward Ed Dixon, Alexa Lauren, Michael Moi, and Cheyenne Silver. Especially not Dixon, by all accounts a respectable horseplayer who rated to do as well as anyone in the tournament. His three colleagues, however, had never before cracked open a Daily Racing Form or given any thought to who might win a horse race. Nevertheless, it was this quartet whose combined scores were a staggering $100 higher than the runner-up, Team Keeneland, which beat the other 46 handily.

The Keeneland team got the $20,000 team prize because the Dixon-Lauren-Moi-Silver juggernaut was playing only for media charity honors. Dwyer and Moi toil in the editorial department of Penthouse magazine, in whose pages both Lauren and Silver have appeared as Pet of the Month centerfolds. This lightly raced Team Penthouse annihilated not only the three other media teams, but also all 44 track- or OTB-affiliated teams consisting of the winners of local handicapping tournaments around the country.

Team Penthouse steamrolled a racebook full of studious horseplayers armed with mountains of statistics and centuries of experience handicapping races. In addition to leading her team to victory in a field of 48, Lauren personally placed fifth overall among the 197 tournament contestants.

One encouraging sign in Team Penthouse's victory was how quickly they warmed up to the science of studying the past performances. They picked their winners not by playing colors or birthdays, but by being introduced to such concepts as career-box statistics, running styles, and Beyer Speed Figures. One of the most repeated canards in racing is that the game is too intimidating to newcomers because it's too tough to learn how to handicap. The Penthouse team figured out the basics in a jiffy and were off to the races.

Still, they were first-timers and their victory was hardly a ringing endorsement for expertise. Is there a lesson here about what it takes to succeed at handicapping? A very depressing lesson?

I choose to think not, that these results are instead more instructive about the randomness of short-term results and the misleading nature of statistically insignificant sample sizes. At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

The contest consisted of only 30 races, and we've all seen that absolutely anyone can have an isolated good weekend at the track. The phenomenon is so frequent that the game has its own entrenched expressions to describe it: Even a blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn; even a broken clock is right twice a day.

A recreational horseplayer might play 1,000 races a year. Within those, there are 30-race sequences when he will be unusually successful or unlucky. As it turned out, victory in the field of 197 required only turning $120 - 30 $2 win-place bets - into $205.30. This was just two days out of an entire year of racing.

There are similar false test results throughout the sport when one looks too closely at a relatively short stretch of time and results. No one won a Triple Crown from 1949 to 1972, leading many to conclude it would never happen again; then there were three in six years. The Dosage and Dual Qualifier systems seemed to work for a while, then proved highly fallible amid a rash of Derby winners with unacceptably high D.I.'s and brief campaigns at 2. No Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has ever returned to win the Derby, but one eventually will.

The interesting question now is whether the Keepers of the Sport will have the moxie to embrace and promote their newest crossover success story. The sport's leaders keep saying they want to focus on attracting young novices to the game. If so, Lauren and Silver could be interesting subjects for traditional calendar or bobblehead-doll giveaway promotions.

There's even a related merchandising play. Until now, it was next to impossible for a fan to get a shoe from one of the sport's stars. Two of my most prized possessions are a horseshoe worn by Secretariat in the 1973 Bay Shore Stakes, and one worn by Devil's Bag in the 1984 Flamingo. Only longstanding personal friendships with people closely involved with these horses gave me the opportunity to obtain these treasured keepsakes.

You don't need connections, however, to own a shoe worn by Lauren. Just go to her website, www.alexalauren.com, where $100 will get you not only a worn shoe but also a Polaroid of her wearing that very shoe. Other used garments are also available, and a "Go, Baby, Go!" logo would not look entirely out of place on the site.

Some might argue that horseplaying Pets are not how racing wants to position itself to appeal to a mainstream audience as other big-time sports do. Any such arguers are directed, at halftime of Sunday's Super Bowl, to watch NBC's special edition of "Fear Factor" featuring Playboy Playmates.