05/08/2008 12:00AM

Derby future wager needs a makeover

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Sometime between now and the prep races next winter leading to the 2009 Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs needs to modernize the clever marketing scheme known as the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

The change is necessary, because the 2008 Derby proved that the future wager - in its current form - has outlived its usefulness. The game has changed so radically that the future wager has become nothing more than an annual prank. And players are wising up.

The 2008 Derby was the 10th anniversary of the future wager and - did anyone notice? - handle on the three pools plummeted 29 percent from 2007. It marked the third straight year of decline; $1.05 million was the lowest handle since 1999, the first year of the bet.

Fading interest is largely due to limited betting options. Unwilling or unable to revise its tired format, Churchill Downs continues to offer only 23 horses in its three pools held in February, March, and April.

If old-school handicapping principles still applied to the Kentucky Derby, perhaps it would not matter. The best 2-year-olds of the previous season would campaign through winter and spring, and gain seasoning and "class" that were once essential to Derby victory. But as Big Brown proved, those elements just do not matter as much anymore.

All it takes now to win the Derby is a huge April stakes win. Horses jump from nowhere, and this year it happened again. Big Brown was so far under the radar he was not listed in the first two future wager pools. Eight Belles, a filly, was included on every Kentucky Oaks future wager list, but none of the Derby pools.

While the game has changed, the future wager has gone stagnant, with nothing more than a short list of 23 familiar names to shuffle through. The other tactic is to wager sensibly on reliable No. 24, the "all others," which encompasses every horse not among the 23 already listed. And backing No. 24 is really the only way to play.

The future wager offered few bargains this year. Pyro was favored the first two pools; his Derby post time odds (5.70-1) were slightly higher than his price of 5.10-1 in Pool 1 and 4-1 in Pool 2.

War Pass was worse. The second choice in Pools 1 and 2, he did not even reach the gate. It is inane to back a low-odds runner weeks before the race. Attrition is severe - 11 of the 23 runners from Pools 1 and 2 did not make the Derby starting gate; nine from pool 3 failed to run in the Derby.

The remedy is simple - offer all original Triple Crown nominees (there were 448 this year) in the future wager, and add an "all others" for late nominations. The odds for individual horses, even "exposed" runners Pyro and War Pass, would be significantly higher.

The 2008 future wager would have included both Big Brown and Eight Belles - original Triple Crown nominees - in all three pools.

Big Brown's odds would have been huge in the first pool, Feb. 7-10. He was a one-start maiden winner without a recorded workout since December. In a 448-entrant field, a Pool-1 price of more than 100-1 on Big Brown was feasible.

It was early March when Big Brown made a smashing allowance comeback. It was still a long way from the Derby, but on a bigger list, bettors would have the option of backing a new shooter, perhaps at 50-1 or higher.

Actually, many future wager bettors did back Big Brown off that allowance win. They settled for slightly lower odds, with far less risk. And they won, again.

They are the same future wager bettors who scored in 1999 on Charismatic, in 2002 on War Emblem, and in 2004 on Smarty Jones. These chaos-savvy bettors make the same play in every future wager pool, every year, and laugh all the way to the long-term bank.

You see, the 3-year-old population undergoes radical change in spring. Sure, some future wager bettors get lucky and find a bargain such as Colonel John (19-1 and 17-1 the first two pools); 9-2 on race day.

But more frequently, injury and declining form cause a massive shift. And until Churchill Downs alters its program and offers more than 23, the future wager will continue as a ruse for anyone who tries to beat No. 24, the "all others."

Over the past decade, Churchill Downs has offered 30 future wager pools; No. 24 has been the winner 10 times. The combined $2 payoff total is $178.20. Not bad for a $60 investment.

Even bettors who missed the most recent all-others bomber (War Emblem in 2002) are still ahead of the game. Over the past six years, No. 24 has won four of 18 pools, and produced a $47.20 return from $36 invested. This year, Big Brown was an "all others" in the first two pools, which returned $8.60 and $15.

The strategy is basic - same bet each pool. This year, a $2 wager on No. 24 in all three pools required $6, and produced a $23.60 return (resulting odds 2.90-1). That may not seem like such a great deal for a horse that started at 2.40-1.

But the all-others strategy always comes with a wide safety net - 12 of the 20 Derby runners in 2008 would have produced a net win for all-others backers.

Gayego, Cool Coal Man, and Visionaire were paying $8.60 as Pool-1 all-others; Big Brown, Big Truck, and Adriano were $23.60 payoffs (Pools 1 and 2 combined); Monba was a $30.60 winner (Pool 3); Anak Nakal, Z Humor, and Cowboy Cal were $45.60 winners (Pools 2 and 3); Eight Belles and Recapturetheglory would have paid $54.20 (all three pools combined).

Maybe the 12-horse "entry" would have flamed out, like 2005 through 2007 when Giacomo, Barbaro, and Street Sense were individually listed in all three pools.

But in horse racing, the only true constant is change. Under the current future wager rules, the only way to wager on change is to back No. 24.

The other option is to simply walk away from the wager entirely, and cause handle declines beyond the 29 percent drop this year.

Or maybe it really does not matter. Maybe the future wager never was intended to be a true wager. Maybe its sole purpose was to be a topic of conversation weeks ahead of the Derby.

In that regard, it works. But it falls short as a wagering vehicle for bettors trying to back an individual runner at a high price.

The 2009 Kentucky Derby is 51 weeks away, leaving one to wonder. Isn't it about time Churchill Downs brought the future wager into the 21st century?