01/23/2006 1:00AM

Derby Future Wager Pool 1 opens early

Stevie Wonderboy (right) will likely have the lowest individual price in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which runs Thursday through Sunday.

NEW YORK - The Kentucky Derby Future Wager returns this week, with Pool 1 running Thursday through Sunday. This is the eighth year of the bet, and all of us who try to win a lot with relatively little lament the fact that although this is a parimutuel bet it still does not offer hundreds of individual wagering interests. That would make the Derby Future Wager a must for just about every horseplayer because of the potential to make a meaningful score with a modest investment. But even in its familiar, more conservative format of 23 individual wagering interests plus a field made up of all other 3-year-olds, the Derby Future Wager and the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager are still entertaining and potentially fulfilling for the ego as well as the bankroll.

There is a new twist to this year's Derby Future Wager: an earlier date for Pool 1. This is the first time that Pool 1 is being offered in January. The earlier date, about two weeks before its customary spot, makes this more of a future wager than ever before. It is also the first time that a Derby Future Wager pool will be conducted on a weekend lacking a truly significant Derby prep race. That is not meant to denigrate Sunday's El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, which could lure a potential Derby aspirant or two. But in past years, Pool 1 was on the same weekend as such races as the Risen Star at Fair Grounds or the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, or both.

As a result, it will be interesting to monitor the betting action on Sunday, particularly just before the Derby Future Wager pool closes at 6 p.m. Eastern (the Oaks Future Wager pool closes a half-hour later).

In years past, most of the handle for each pool was wagered on Sunday, and a big chunk was bet as the deadline approached. That should not change. Since this is a parimutuel wager, you're not going to get a bigger price on a specific horse if you bet Thursday afternoon than you would if you waited until Sunday. I know I've said it many times, but it bears repeating: By waiting until the deadline draws near, you will have a better sense of what the final odds will be. You will also avail yourself of the opportunity to learn of any pertinent breaking news, such as injuries. This is just as critical because once you bet, there are no refunds.

What could be different about the Pool 1 betting on Sunday is that we might not see the drastic odds fluctuations of years past. Typically on Sunday, horseplayers would digest the results of pertinent Derby prep races run on Saturday and wager accordingly. It was not unusual to see odds drops of 20, 30, or even more points on Sunday on individual wagering interests that ran big on Saturday. But with no significant Derby prep races this weekend - unless you consider the Sunshine Millions Dash at Santa Anita or the Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs to be important preps - the only engine remaining to drive big odds swings would be injury news.

Otherwise, the Derby Future Wager figures to be very familiar. The field will in all likelihood be the favorite, as it has in every Pool 1 since the bet's inception in 1999. The highest odds on the field were 4-1 in 1999 and 7-2 in 2000, when bettors still weren't sure what to do with this new toy. The lowest price on the field in Pool 1 was 9-5 in 2004, bracketed by odds of 2-1 on the field in 2003 and last year.

There will also be the annual debate over whether the field is a worthwhile bet. To many of us, the field is an unimaginative and unappealing option. Among the individual interests, the examples of Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 (he paid $27.80 in Pool 1 and $6.60 on Derby Day) and Funny Cide in 2003 (he returned a whopping $188 in Pool 1, a record for all Derby Future Wager pools, and $27.60 on Derby Day) are precisely the reasons why this bet is attractive. But the fact is, Charismatic in 1999, War Emblem in 2002, and Smarty Jones in 2004 were all field winners of Pool 1 in the first seven years of the Derby Future Wager, and a blind flat bet on the field in Pool 1 every year shows a $2 return on investment of $3.34. While that may not be very sexy, it isn't anything to sneeze at.

And finally, it will be interesting to see which horse will have the distinction of being the lowest-priced individual wagering interest in Pool 1.

Distinction? Actually, burden may be a better term. Barring the unforeseen, Stevie Wonderboy figures to be the one. But so far the lowest-priced individual wagering interest in Pool 1 has yet to win the Derby. In fact, the last three to have this role - Badge of Silver in 2003, Eurosilver in 2004, and Declan's Moon last year - did not even make it to the race.

Stevie Wonderboy already has a lot to overcome in trying to be the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and first 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid to win the Derby.