02/07/2008 1:00AM

Derby futures in need of overhaul

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NEW YORK - Betting on the Kentucky Derby Future Wager has been in a steady decline the last three years, and there's no reason to think anything will be different with this year's pools, the first of which opened Thursday and ends Sunday.

After peaking at a total of $1.66 million for the three pools in 2005, the bet handled $1.47 million in 2006 and just $1.36 million last year. That's an alarming 18 percent decline over the last two years, a period during which total parimutuel handle has been stable, Derby wagering has increased, and in-home wagering should have attracted new casual customers to the futures bet.

Even if it weren't sinking, the handle on the bet is shockingly small in comparison to other betting pools. The worst race on the card in New York or California this weekend will handle more in a half-hour than the $400,000 or so that the Derby futures pool will attract over three days, even though the former will involve obscure statebred maiden claimers and the latter the best-known candidates for the sport's most famous race.

It seems clear to everyone except Churchill Downs that the bet, as currently offered, has simply failed to spark the public imagination and is in need of revision or expansion.

Horseplayers don't get fired up by results like last year's, where Street Sense paid $22.80 in Pool 1, $18.20 in Pool 2, $15.40 in Pool 3, and $11.20 on Derby Day. Sure, you got a slightly better price the earlier you bet him, but that was simply a fair trade for the additional gamble that he wouldn't step on a rock one morning and miss the race. Also, it can go the other way: Ask anyone who took $52 on Giacomo in Pool 1 in 2005 only to watch him pay $102.60 on Derby Day.

The best way to end the futures malaise would be to scrap the current system of limiting wagering to 23 individual horses and a mutuel field of none-of-the-above. Taking wagers on 400 rather than 24 betting interests would send individual prices skyrocketing as bettors stabbed at multiple 200-1 and 2,000-1 shots in the field. The connections of all those horses would be jumping into the pool, buying fistfuls of tickets at huge prices on their runners.

The argument that having 400 betting interests would confuse or overwhelm the public or the tote system is just hooey. Every track in America is capable of conducting a trifecta on a nine-horse field, in which there are 504 possible combinations. The most primitive tote system handles it and customers don't seem bewildered. Assign each horse a three-digit number and take bets. It happens hundreds of times every day, at racetracks and sports books everywhere.

Since pundits and horseplayers suggest such a revision every year with no success, perhaps there's another way to achieve a similar result. If Churchill is insistent on keeping just 24 betting interests, why not add a Derby Futures Exacta pool to the current win betting?

While individual betting on every Triple Crown nominee would have created a maximum of 448 betting interests this year, exacta betting with 24 interests would provide 552 (24x23) possible combinations. Actually there would be 553, because you would have to permit a No. 24-No. 24 exacta bet of "all others" with "all others," for those who don't think any of the 23 individual entrants will run one-two on Derby Day. In the Derby Futures Exacta, No. 24 would be the biggest, cheapest all button - or almost-all button - in parimutuel history, while inflating the exacta prices on all 506 of the combinations involving just the 23 individual interests.

It would be a little weird but a lot of fun and it would cost Churchill Downs about the price of a mint julep to add it to current setup: Just throw the switch for exacta wagering on the race. Instead of making token win bets, players would probably get more heavily involved with boxes and partwheels promising four-digit payoffs on Derby Day. If you'd thrown both Funny Cide and Empire Maker into a five-horse box back in February 2003, you might well have gotten a $1,000 futures exacta instead of the $97 it paid on Derby Day.

The point of either opening up betting to all nominees or running an exacta is to create hundreds rather than two dozen possible outcomes. This is what bettors clearly like, since the only pools growing in American racing are those with the most possibilities and highest payoffs. Especially in the face of a steady decline, why not try giving the public what it wants?