04/07/2004 11:00PM

A cloudy vision of the Derby future

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NEW YORK - There has never been a closing odds board quite like the one that emerged last Sunday from the final round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, a true marvel of chaos and indecision. Consider the following:

* In the six years of parimutuel futures betting, the "all others" mutuel field had never been favored in the final pool. This year, it was the clear choice at 6.70-1. Think for a moment what this says: Just 27 days before the Kentucky Derby, not one of the 22 leading contenders had more support than the opinion that none of them will win the race.

* Among individual horses, the closing favorite has been as low as 2-1 (Point Given in 2001) and never higher than 7-1 (Harlan's Holiday in 2002). Empire Maker was 5-2 last year, Fusaichi Pegasus was 3-1 in 2000. This year, the shortest price was 10.60-1 on Smarty Jones, who has never run in a graded stakes race, and who will probably be denied a starting berth for lack of earnings unless he runs third or better in the Arkansas Derby.

* Of the 22 individual runners in the final pool, an amazing 14 different horses closed in the narrow range between 13-1 and 23-1, and only three closed at higher than 28-1. The money could almost have been bet at random with the same results. Imagine if someone told you that $500,000 had been diverted from the Kentucky lottery into the final futures pool and assigned in nearly equal amounts to the 23 betting interests. Normally you would love to dive into such a pool, but this year the collective wisdom of American horseplayers amounted to picking numbers out of a hat.

* Horses who did nothing good or nothing at all actually decreased in price between the second and third pools. The largest price drop came on Minister Eric, who arguably had had the worst spring of any candidate, losing both of his starts without venturing outside allowance company. That was enough to cut him from 52-1 to 27-1. Action This Day, Borrego, Master David, Read the Footnotes, The Cliff's Edge and Value Plus all dropped in price while not racing between the two pools.

Will this confusion evaporate Saturday, after 13 of the 22 futures horses have their final prep, six of them in the Wood Memorial, five in the Blue Grass, and two in the Arkansas Derby? It's inconceivable that all three races could be so bad that any of the contenders who are done prepping - Castledale, Friends Lake, Imperialism, Pollard's Vision, Read the Footnotes, Rock Hard Ten or Wimbledon - could actually be favored on Derby Day.

So if anyone wins one of the Big Three races by open lengths, with a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 or higher and a final furlong under 13 seconds, he probably gets to be the favorite for the 130th Kentucky Derby. Two out of three might be enough. It would be nice to see such a runner emerge for the sake of sport and quality, but the more hard-hearted handicappers may be hoping for another trio of ambiguous and uninspiring results to make the race yet more vexing and parimutuelly attractive. Contrarians might also enjoy the emergence of some highly vulnerable favorites, such as three loose-on-the-lead, slow-paced victories (Value Plus, Lion Heart, Smarty Jones), setting up a Derby day scenario where those three might duel one another into defeat while running up against distance limitations.

Recent history suggests we should stop agonizing and just pay attention to what happens in the Wood, which has yielded the Derby winner and and two-thirds of the Derby trifecta in three of the last four years: Fusaichi Pegasus and Aptitude in 2000, Monarchos and Congaree in 2001 and Funny Cide and Empire Maker last year. The race also produced Red Bullet, the 2000 Preakness winner, and Medaglia d'Oro in 2002.

The only problem is that as strong as the Wood looks over the last four years, it was a major dud in many preceding seasons. You can safely offer high odds at any saloon in the land, even those located across the street from stable gates, that no one can name the first three finishers in the Wood the year before Fusaichi Pegasus, Red Bullet, and Aptitude crossed the wire in that order.

Give up? It was Adonis, Best of Luck and Cliquot. Only Adonis went to Louisville, where he ran 17th at 18-1. The Derby favorites - Excellent Meeting, General Challenge, and Stephen Got Even - ran fifth, 11th, and 14th. That was the year that Charismatic won the Derby at 31-1 and the Preakness at 8-1 before Lemon Drop Kid scored at 29-1 in the Belmont. Charismatic was an "all others" in Pool 3 that year - maybe $15.40 on that proposition wasn't a terrible idea this time around.