05/24/2002 12:00AM

Bridge-jumping works - if you bat .950-plus


LEXINGTON, Ky. - When Bet on Sunshine finished a troubled fourth in the ninth race at Churchill on May 15, $63,871 of the total $75,721 show pool was bet on him. Bettors holding show tickets on any of the first three finishers were rewarded handsomely. U.S. Jets won, and paid $45.60 to win, $15.60 to place, and $40.60 to show. District was second, and returned $16 to place and $35.60 to show. Bidis, the 8-5 second choice, finished third, and paid a generous $8.40.

Although I'm sure that a large number of people bet at least a few dollars to show on Bet on Sunshine, the most likely scenario is that the bulk of the money wagered on him in that pool came from a small handful of well-funded bettors commonly referred to as bridge-jumpers. Bridge-jumpers try to earn a quick 5 percent profit by making carefully selected show wagers on horses they believe are almost certain to finish no worse than third in a given race.

Is the method profitable? If it were, wouldn't bettors who make wagers like that have earned a better nickname by now? They could just as easily be known as quick-wealth accumulators, or bridge builders if there were steady profits to be had.

The reason why those positive-sounding nicknames haven't caught on is that it is incredibly difficult for even the most talented handicappers to win more money than they lose with that long-term betting strategy. A quick check of the math involved explains why: If you win 20 of 21 such $2 bets, all at the minimum $2.10 payoff, you will get back $42, and will break even on the $42 you bet. To the extent that you can exceed the 95.24 percent success rate required to get your investment back, you will show a profit.

Is that 95-plus percent success rate achievable? I strongly doubt it. Think of the thousands of bets you have made during your years as a horseplayer. Haven't more than 5 percent of the horses you liked broken badly, if not terribly? Haven't more than 5 percent of the horses you have bet on been eliminated from contention when they checked sharply in traffic, or raced extremely wide, or both? Haven't more than 5 percent of your front-runners dueled through a red-hot pace, then tired badly, and finished far back? And haven't more than 5 percent of your selections run surprisingly dull races for no readily apparent reason? For most bettors, the answer surely is yes to all of those questions. It is frustrating enough to endure unlucky circumstances when only a few hundred dollars are on the line. The stress must be incredible when you are betting tens of thousands of dollars.

Here is some more math to consider: Let's say that you make a $50,000 show bet today with the intention of making a $2,500 profit. If your horse finishes off the board, how much money would you have to bet to show to get your $50,000 back? The answer is that you would have to risk $1 million just to get back to the financial position you were in when you thought that a $2,500 gain was worth your time and effort. Isn't that a lot more stress and trouble than the potential $2,500 profit is worth?

Come to think of it, if you have an extra $50,000 laying around, would it really make much of a difference to you to know that you have added $2,500 to it? How many things are you yearning to buy for $52,500 that you can't afford to purchase with the $50,000 you already have?

If you have been making steady profits for years and years by making massive show bets, please don't let me discourage you. But my advice to anyone aspiring to be a bridge-jumper is that the job seems much too risky and pressure-packed to be a comfortable way to earn money. Then again, who am I to be giving advice? I'm still waiting for my Enron shares, and my no-guarantee Cigar breeding seasons to climb back up to what I originally paid for them.