02/08/2007 12:00AM

Derby futures need shot in the arm

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NEW YORK – The first of the year’s three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools operated by Churchill Downs opened for betting Thursday afternoon amid the same palpable lack of enthusiasm that has surrounded the bet in recent years. As currently constructed, the wager lacks the appeal of true winter-book wagering and seems doomed to continue its recent performance of attracting small and stagnant pools without capturing the public imagination.

The problem is that the wager offers a choice of only 23 of the 450 Triple Crown nominees, with a 24th “none of the above” option that covers the other 427. So if you like one of those horses in the “bottom” 95 percent of current popularity, you can get a big fat 7-2 or so on him and 426 other horses you probably don’t want. Or you can go shopping online or in Las Vegas and get the 100-1 or better you deserve.

It’s understandable that Churchill initially set up the bet this way. Track officials were told by the tote companies that reprogramming machines to take more than 24 betting interests would cost a small fortune and confuse the public. An official, parimutuel 24-entry Derby future bet was better than nothing. After eight years, however, with pools and interest having leveled off at best, it is time to try something different.

The best thing to try would be to make it a real future book, with separate betting on every individual Triple Crown nominee. With 450 rather than 24 betting interests, prices would skyrocket and bettors could get stratospheric prices on obscure runners. Horses rarely go off at more than 100-1 under the current system, but there would be dozens going off at 10 times that price with a totally open field. Imagine just getting to the gate with a horse you got 1,200-1 on in February.

Having 427 other places for money to flow would raise the prices on even the top contenders, which is the other big problem with the current system. It’s just not a very good bet to take low double-digit odds on a listed contender who still needs to improve, avoid injuries, and make the ever-tougher cut just to be in the Derby field. Doubling or tripling the current odds would solve that problem in a hurry. Prices on most would also be better than those now offered in the online or Nevada winter books, where the house is trying to protect its position and often effectively charging a much higher vigorish than the parimutuel system.

The objections to a 450-runner field are difficulties in programming the bet and displaying odds. The first issue is a red herring. Each horse can be assigned a three-digit number, and the bet can be processed just as trifectas or pick threes currently are, with revisions that a moderately talented 11-year-old programmer could make in an afternoon. Las Vegas bettors manage to bet sports and futures this way without suffering from the confusion that track officials say would result from such an approach.

Obviously, current odds for all 450 runners could not be displayed on a single screen, and not that many tracks even bother to put up the current 24-horse screen. Tracks, however, could designate an area where a current odds printout could be posted, and there’s this newfangled thing called the Internet where real-time odds could be easily accessible. It’s a drawback, but not an insurmountable one.

An experiment along these lines is really not risky. Churchill is not garnering significant revenue off the current pools, which is fine: The futures are more important as a marketing and promotional tool than as a moneymaker right now, and if for some reason the public didn’t like a new format, it could quickly be changed back. Perhaps next year’s first Future Wager pool could be a real winter book with 450 entries, and revert to the 24-entry format for the March and April versions. That would be a low-risk way to try something different and gauge enthusiasm for the different formats.

As it is now, both the connections of 3-year-olds nominated to the Triple Crown and adventurous handicappers with longshot Derby horses are making most of their future-book bets in Las Vegas rather than through Churchill Downs. They will continue to do so until Churchill embraces the same philosophy it applies to its everyday racing: Horseplayers like bigger fields and bigger prices.