07/22/2004 12:00AM

Day One lesson: Don't beat yourself

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DEL MAR, Calif. - As if summertime handicappers needed the reminder, opening day of the 2004 Del Mar racing season provided an unsympathetic memory-jog that there are dozens of ways to lose.

Sometimes, bettors are just flat wrong about a horse's chance to win. It took all of one race to find an example. Albatros was 7-5 to win the first race of the meet, despite having been scratched in the post parade of a $32,000 claimer back on May 16, taking two months off, and returning at an all-time low class level - $16,000 claiming.

Still worse, Albatros had lost his desire. After winning 11 of his first 28, he had grown content to be a pack animal. In his 11 races leading to Wednesday, Albatros finished second or third eight times, without crossing the wire first. It's never a good sign when a veteran forgets how to win. Albatros finished second again on Wednesday.

A handicapper could argue that the main track favored the inside lanes on opening day, and that Albatros was compromised by his rally-wide trip. That is not the point. It is okay to be wrong. But when you are betting on 7-5 shots, you really cannot afford to miss too often.

Bad luck is another way to lose. It happened in race 2 for $25,000 maiden-claimers. Kinship was dropping off a claim after two losses as the favorite. But he was the fastest horse, and most probable winner at 4-5. But then Kinship bobbled at the start, lost position, drifted out through the lane, and fell short by a nose while 6 1/2 lengths clear of third. When you're betting on 4-5 shots, you cannot afford bad luck.

Kinship will meet similar again, be favored again, and should win. But only if he does not encounter bad luck again, like the type that befell another well-fancied $25,000 maiden-claimer in race 9. He Does was jamming back only nine days after blowing a sizable lead in deep stretch, and when the gates opened, he jumped in the air, broke next to last, and finished seventh. Can you make money betting on 7-5 shots such as He Does? Sure, sometimes, but only when everything goes right.

Everything does not always go right - racing includes a large dose of chaos. The question is, how much chaos can a bettor afford? How much cushion should a bettor allow for the dozens of ways to lose? The simpleminded answer is to merely shun low-odds favorites such as Highly Tempting, the 6-5 choice in race 3 for bottom-level sprinters. If race 1 favorite Albatros had lost his desire, so had Highly Tempting.

Since winning a $62,500 claimer in December, Highly Tempting had spoiled. Runner-up in four of his last six, dropping in class nearly every time, Highly Tempting appeared to have found his level Wednesday. At Del Mar, horses cannot drop any lower than $10,000 claiming. Perhaps the racing strip did favor the inside, because the winner, Water Czar, never left the fence, and though headed by Highly Tempting in midstretch, Water Czar - up a notch after a big win for $8,000 claiming - re-rallied to win by a half-length.

Highly Tempting was supposed to win. But horses cheat, and Highly Tempting did. He is not the horse he was seven months ago. Few horses are. It is awfully tough to make money betting on 6-5 class-droppers.

How about odds-on favorites who wash out in the post parade? Paz Ciudadana was 9-10 to win race 4, despite two huge obstacles: the imposing class hike from N1X to N2X, and her dripping-wet appearance before the start of the turf route. Paz Ciudadana got rank, faded, and finished fourth.

By the end of the day, favorites had gone a collective 0 for 9 to start the 2004 Del Mar meet. It won't stay that way. There will be plenty of winning favorites, and plenty who lose.

It's no big deal to lose a bet or a race through mistaken analysis. It is all right just to be wrong. There are, however, at least two keys to a winning season. One is avoiding, as much as possible, the inevitable losses. That means steering clear of class-dropping favorites, counterfeit hangers, and washed-out class-jumpers.

Let opening day of the 2004 Del Mar racing season serve as a reminder that winning at the races also requires not losing. And when the price is wrong, that much is easy. It merely entails not betting.