05/01/2005 11:00PM

Derby noise bettors ought to ignore


NEW YORK - The reason why every card-carrying horseplayer in America is so tempted to take the rubber band off the bankroll and unload on the Kentucky Derby is simple: No other race in the United States offers the same kind of betting value. With as many as 20 individual wagering interests in the race, perfectly plausible horses can finish one-two-three and result in a four-figure trifecta payoff. If a little imagination is employed, and more exotic possibilities are included, horseplayers have a chance to make a five-figure score.

If you intend to take a swing at the Derby, there are many things to pay attention to before betting. These are fairly obvious, like condition, form, quality, pace, and projected ability at 1 1/4 miles. But there will be some other issues raised this week that should be taken with a grain of salt - if you want to be thinking clearly while formulating your Derby betting strategy.

Perhaps the biggest pre-Derby event this week will be Wednesday's draw for post positions, otherwise known as the single hour of television most painful to endure. Unless your horse has horrendous luck and gets either post 1 or the extreme outside, the Derby post positions, and the contrived ceremony attached to their assignments, mean less than little.

In fact, perhaps the only entertainment value in the Derby draw show is an inadvertent one: watching all the representatives of the Derby starters going up to hang their placards and laughably avoiding the auxiliary starting gate like it was the plague. The thing is, the auxiliary gate may actually be the place to be. Even though the main starting gate holds 14 horses and the auxiliary gate holds only six, five of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners (Thunder Gulch in 1995, Grindstone in 1996, Charismatic in 1999, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, and Monarchos in 2001) all began their Derby trips from the auxiliary gate.

If the world ever turned on its head and I actually had the opportunity to pick a post position for a Derby horse, I would pick post 15 every time. Post 15 is the first stall in the auxiliary starting gate, and that slot gives you room at the break that all but one of the other Derby horses does not have, thanks to the gap between the main gate and the auxiliary one. And, if there should ever be a scratch and you have to move over one post, you would still get that extra room at the start, because post 14 is the outside stall of the main gate, and you would be the only other horse beside the one breaking from post 15 to benefit from the gap between gates.

Another red herring is the matter of Derby experience. It will be stated in various corners that the experience of having saddled or ridden a horse in the Derby is somehow meaningful, as if having saddled or ridden a starter in a previous Derby will make a horse in Saturday's Derby run faster. The fact is, recent history tells us Derby experience means nothing. Last year's Derby winner, Smarty Jones, was the first Derby starter for trainer John Servis and the first Derby mount for jockey Stewart Elliott. Funny Cide, the 2003 winner, was the first Derby starter for trainer Barclay Tagg. War Emblem, the 2002 winner, was only the second Derby mount for jockey Victor Espinoza. And when Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000, it was the first year trainer Neil Drysdale had competed in the Derby. Clearly, it is the horse, not experience, that really matters.

The one that gets me the most, however, is when you read the trainer of a Derby horse saying that his horse handles the Churchill Downs track well in his training. This is not to be confused with a horse who is training well, because it is obviously important to know if your Derby starter is healthy and doing well. But when you hear a horse has been handling the Churchill surface well, it means nothing, because the track these Derby colts have trained on will be nothing like the one they race over Saturday.

Unless rain is a factor, Churchill Downs, like many other tracks on their big race days, speeds up the track late in Derby week. Its main track will be faster on Friday for Oaks Day and faster still on Derby Day, bearing little resemblance to the surface over which the Derby starters have recorded their final workouts.

How much does Churchill tighten up the track? Well, the Derby has been run 130 times, yet five of the fastest 10 runnings of the Derby have occurred in the last nine years. Monarchos won the second-fastest Derby in 2001 over a track that was perhaps the fastest ever seen. Grindstone won the seventh-fastest Derby in 1996. Fusaichi Pegasus won the eighth-fastest Derby in 2000. War Emblem won the ninth-fastest Derby in 2002. And Funny Cide won the 10th fastest Derby in 2003.

This is no coincidence, because it's not like the Thoroughbred breed has suddenly become so much better. But it does make you wonder what kind of time a truly special horse these days could record.