03/15/2002 1:00AM

D'Amico's tale: When bad things happen to good riders

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sure, most racing fans feel sympathy for jockey Tony D'Amico now that he has been replaced by Jerry Bailey on Kentucky Derby contender Repent, and by Edgar Prado on Derby contender Harlan's Holiday. But can any of us truly relate to the pain he is feeling?

If you would like to try to put it into perspective, consider the following scenario: Your wife calls you at work and says, "Honey, I've been doing some thinking about our marriage. You're a fine husband, and a loving father to our kids. You have a good job, you've always put food on the table, and you're generous with gifts on birthdays, and during the holidays. Nevertheless, the kids and I believe we can do better."

"Better? What do you mean?"

"Well," she continues, "It turns out that Bill Gates has a brother, and he's single. We met him on the Internet, and we've really been hitting it off. The kids and I have talked about it, and we've made a decision. Here's the bottom line: He's in, you're out. We're moving into his mansion this weekend. Try not to take it personally."

A few days later, you get a call from your mother.

"Sorry about the wife and kids, son."

"Thanks, Mom."

"You've always been a good boy. When you were a child you were respectful to us, you studied hard, and you got good grades in school. Now that you're all grown up, you fly in to visit us three or four times a year, and you always spend time with us during the holidays. Just the same, your father and I are thinking about making a change."

"A change? What kind of a change?"

"We're convinced that we can do better than you. We met the nicest young man in our condo building. He's about your age, and he's a plastic surgeon. He's much more successful than you'll ever be, and he's willing to come over and have dinner with us every Sunday. I'll cut to the chase. Your father and I are adopting him. Your services as a son are no longer needed."

Are you getting a better idea of how it might feel to be Tony D'Amico these days?

Ideally, the best way to compare D'Amico and Bailey would be for them to exchange mounts for a year. According to statistics provided by Bob Selvin's Turfday, the average odds on D'Amico's 2,383 starters during the three-year period from March 8, 1999 through March 7, 2002, was 13-1. When D'Amico rode a favorite, it was almost by accident, happening just 361 times, which works out to only 15 percent of his rides.

During that same period, Bailey's 2,542 mounts were sent to the post at average odds of only 7-2. Bailey was on 1,126 favorites, an impressive 44 percent of his total rides. Give Bailey the 13-1 longshots D'Amico is often stuck aboard, and his win percentage would plunge. Give D'Amico Bailey's steady stream of 7-2 contenders, and his win rate would soar.

Since it is unlikely that Bailey will volunteer to exchange mounts with D'Amico any time soon, why not compare apples vs. apples and see how effective each jockey has been when he was aboard the post time favorite? Those of you who have been applauding the switch from D'Amico to Bailey might want to stop at this point and make a guess as to how large you believe the gap between them might turn out to be. Will Bailey win with 50 percent of his favorites vs. D'Amico's 25 percent? Perhaps you are in the mood to be charitable, and estimate that the gap between them would be closer to 45 percent vs. 25 percent.

The correct answer will probably surprise you. Bailey won with 429 of 1,126 favorites for a 38 percent batting average, and D'Amico won with 131 of 361 favorites for a 36 percent win rate. Doesn't the slim 2 percent gap between them seem rather trivial, especially when measured against values like loyalty and trust?

The comparison of D'Amico vs. Edgar Prado is even more interesting. It turns out that Prado won with 405 of 1,158 favorites, or 35 percent. That's one point lower than D'Amico's 36 percent. If you are going to make a fuss about Bailey's 2 percent edge over D'Amico, aren't you also obligated to respect D'Amico's one point advantage over Prado?

Life is fair only on rare occasions, so it shouldn't surprise anyone to see how unpleasant the last couple of weeks have been for D'Amico. But it would be awfully nice to see some more objectivity added to the decision-making process when owners and/or trainers are tempted to toss a jockey off of a Derby contender.

I would go on, but my wife has already asked me to take the trash out to the curb three or four times, and she doesn't look happy. I'm fully aware, from watching Entertainment Tonight, that Tom Cruise is now a bachelor. For all I know, his agent might already have contacted her about the possibility of making a change. I better do what she says. I don't want to be D'Amicoed.