04/25/2003 12:00AM

Climb aboard while price still juicy

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - It is a basic human instinct to prefer safety and relative security to risk and uncertainty. Where life and limb are concerned, that is undoubtedly the right strategy. But when you are gambling with money at the races, embracing risk and uncertainty is the smarter long-term strategy, as long as you are being properly compensated for the risks you are taking.

When a 3-year-old suddenly runs a much-improved race at long odds in a Kentucky Derby prep race, the typical reaction from most handicappers is disbelief. They insist on seeing two strong races in a row before they are willing to jump on the bandwagon.

There are two problems with that conservative approach. First, improvement in 3-year-olds should not be viewed as an aberration, especially in March and April. Second, by the time a longshot has run two impressive races in a row, he is no longer a longshot.

With just one strong race at double-digit odds in the Lexington Stakes under his belt, Charismatic, most bettors believed, was too risky to play back in the 1999 Kentucky Derby. He paid $64.60 when he won the race. After his Derby triumph, many of the bettors who had been skeptical about him finally had the reassurance they were seeking. But their reward for playing it safe was a much lower $18.80 when Charismatic won the Preakness.

Which improving longshot deserves the nod this year? My selection is Sir Cherokee. He ran a huge race when he made a powerful, sustained run from last in a field of 12 to win the Arkansas Derby going away. Although the pace of that race was strong, he still deserves plenty of credit for being the only closer in that field to make serious late progress in a race where the runners who were second, third, and fourth after a quarter-mile had no trouble sticking around to finish the race in that same order.

Deep closers are usually at a disadvantage on most days at most North American tracks. The results of the 12-race Arkansas Derby card at Oaklawn on April 12 were fairly typical. Eight of the 12 races (67 percent) were won by horses who had been located in the front half of their field at the first call.

The bias trend in the Kentucky Derby is frequently different from that norm. Rather than hindering closers, the honest fractions that are usually found in large Derby fields and the long stretch run combine to assist horses who try to rally from the rear half of the pack. Since 1970, in Kentucky Derby fields of 15 and larger, 16 winners have rallied to win from the rear half of their field vs. nine who won from the front half. Rather than fitting into the category that won just 33 percent of the races on Arkansas Derby Day, Sir Cherokee in the Kentucky Derby will fit into the category that has won 64 percent, essentially doubling his chances of having the right running style.

Trainer Michael Tomlinson understands that some handicappers are expecting Sir Cherokee to regress following his impressive win, but he has seen no signs that would suggest the race took a lot out of him.

"He has trained exceptionally well since the race, and has stayed in his feed tub. He's doing great," Tomlinson said.

Asked whether Sir Cherokee might lose his composure amidst the noise and chaos common on the first Saturday in May, Tomlinson responded confidently.

"Sir Cherokee is one of the most intelligent horses I've been around," he said. "I don't think the Derby crowd will be a factor. He has always handled things with a professional attitude."

Handicappers would also be well advised not to underestimate Tomlinson. Although he does not yet have a large stable, he has done quite well with the horses he has, winning 29 percent of his 21 starts this year.

With an impressive Arkansas Derby win, a running style that will probably be a better fit for the Kentucky Derby than it was in most of his other races, a sharp trainer whose skills have not yet been recognized by most bettors, and overlaid odds in the neighborhood of 30-1, Sir Cherokee will be a very attractive longshot.