01/29/2004 12:00AM

Depth, quality worth a shot at $72 per hour

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I am rarely intrigued by bets offering large guaranteed pools. Pick six wagers with carryovers are far more attractive because carryovers kick in money to offset the large takeouts of such exotic wagers.

So why do I find Magna's $500,000-guaranteed pick five - a wager linking races from Laurel Park, Gulfstream, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita - more appealing than a typical guaranteed-pool pick six? The depth and quality of the races. Of the five races, two are stakes and the other three races are allowances with competitive fields.

If nothing else, the races are simply more interesting than a standard card at a given racetrack.

The downer is the cost to play. The bet has a $2 minimum, and with the depth of the races, bettors will probably have to go deep in at least several legs to have a realistic shot of winning. This may price out some small-ticket bettors.

The good news is that the five races are largely talent-filled affairs. They also will come in rapid-fire succession, all within an hour.

The difficulty for horseplayers is analyzing the races from four different tracks. With races from Laurel, Gulfstream, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita all in the pick five mix, it is a rare bettor who will have a strong feel for every track.

I know I felt that way handicapping the five races. Laurel and Golden Gate are not tracks that I play on a regular basis. I feel much more comfortable wagering on Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Turfway, and, to a lesser extent, Santa Anita, because I know the horses, trainers, and jockeys there better than those at other tracks.

But, liking a challenge, I thought I'd take a crack at handicapping the pick five.

My bet is either going to start very well or die an early death, because I'm beginning with a single. Cruise Along, fourth in the Affectionately Handicap at Aqueduct Jan. 17, will be singled on my tickets in the opening leg, The Nellie Morse from Laurel.

My rationale for choosing her was simple. She's fast, classy, and is a closer in a field inundated with pace.

The ninth race at Gulfstream, an optional claimer, comes next and there I decided to go deeper, choosing three horses. How About It and Polo Ridge have a recency edge over many others in the field, and the comebacking Elegant Mercedes ran her career-best Beyer Speed Figure in her last return from a layoff.

Racing shifts to the West Coast for the third leg, the Grade 3 Brown Bess Handicap from Golden Gate. Red Rioja is the class of the race, having been fifth in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon in September. She is unraced since October, which could give the rapidly improving Abbey Bridge a shot.

Next it is back to Gulfstream for the 10th race, the fourth leg of the bet. I found this race - one-other-than for older horses - puzzling because of its mediocrity. I'm using Sea Power, a recent Scott Lake claim, and Country Judge, who was fourth in his local bow after a rough trip.

The potential winners run much deeper than these two horses, but to add significantly more horses would drive up the price beyond what is acceptable to me.

Finally, we go to Southern California for the last race of the pick five, the fifth from Santa Anita. Like the Nellie Morse, this route is loaded with front-runners. My choices are a combination of stalkers and closers: Sharpster, Leroidesanimaux, and Dust Cover.

Playing one horse in the first leg, three in the second, two in the third and fourth, and three in the last leg results in a $72 ticket - enough to have a bit of fun, without going overboard on a wager with no carryover.