02/10/2009 12:00AM

Demand fair odds for high-risk Derby bet

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When wagering opens for the first of three pools of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager on Thursday at noon Eastern, horseplayers across the country will begin to play the wager. Some will place a bet for the usual reason gamblers do, believing they can make a score, while others will simply want the excitement of being a wagering part of America's greatest horse race.

If backing the Derby winner on Derby Day is good for the wallet and an ego boost, betting the Derby winner in February is almost a chest-thumping experience for a horseplayer.

Ego in check, view the wagering task ahead as the challenge that it is, realizing that much can happen in the next 2 1/2 months. Infrequently is the best horse in mid-February the best horse on the first Saturday in May.

My advice, as well as my own wagering strategy, is to form your own betting line, based on "fair" odds - in other words, if there were no takeout. Assess each horse's current merits, the probability of improvement, and all the while factor in the risk of what can unfold in the months and weeks ahead. Similarly, take a look at horses not among the 23 individual interests to get a better feel for what price would be fair to take on the mutuel field, which represents all horses not among the 23 individual interests.

Then bet as late as possible before the 6 p.m. Sunday close of wagering to have the best gauge of where the track odds compare favorably with your line.

Realize in measuring fair odds what legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham once said: "Horses are like strawberries. They can spoil overnight."

Square Eddie, for example, was a prime Kentucky Derby contender a week or two ago, set to face Old Fashioned in the Southwest. Now, battling sore shins and with his Derby participation in doubt, he is not even among the 23 individual betting interests for the race.

This, or something similar, could happen to any of Derby prospects in the weeks ahead.

Actually, "could" is not the right world. "Will" is being more accurate.

The law of percentages says some horse could sadly break a bone. Another will have regular meetings with his farrier. Some other one will show he couldn't get 1 1/4 miles in a pickup truck. And 10 others will show they are simply too slow.

The only way to offset this risk is to demand wagering value.

Looking for something other than the morning line to get a gauge of odds? Check out , which lists odds offered from up to six bookmakers for the Derby.

When I glanced at the site Monday afternoon, Vineyard Haven, Old Fashioned, and Pioneerof the Nile were virtually co-favored - all at about 14-1 or 16-1.

In other words, the bookmakers are telling us that there is no clear-cut Derby favorite, and even the most fancied runners have much to do to make the race, much less win it.

Speaking of Vineyard Haven - winner of the Hopeful and Champagne before being sold to Godolphin - he was entered in Thursday's UAE 2000 Guineas in Dubai. Check the results of that race before wagering, or even better, try to view his race on television or online.

As for the field - that being No. 24, "all others" - it's hardly a bet that gets one dreaming of riches, knowing that it is expected to be 5-2 or 3-1, a fraction of what single interests will offer in price.

That doesn't necessarily make it a bad bet, though. The field in Pool 1 has won four of the 10 times Churchill Downs has offered this wager. It has also returned a flat-bet profit.

Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Smarty Jones (2004), and Big Brown (2008) were all first-pool-field winners.

Of course, if you liked those horses specifically, you could have gotten better odds at post time or in later future pools.

But that is not why most people play the field. By playing the field, most are saying, "I don't think too highly of the 23 individual interests," and, well, "stuff happens."

Stuff does happen. It happens a lot.

Horses get hurt. Horses go from first-level allowance winners to Derby favorites seemingly overnight (e.g. Big Brown), and with just 23 individual interests, Churchill Downs cannot possibly include every top prospect out there.

So if you see vulnerability in the 23 listed horses, by all means don't feel bad about betting the field, like you're some bridge-jumper backing a 1-5 shot to show.

Just don't cheer too loudly on Derby Day. No one wants to miss out on a big score to someone hoping for 5-2 on the field.

And let there be no doubt - there is no chest-thumping allowed when successfully betting the field.