05/08/2009 12:00AM

Derby result left feeling of less than zero


LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you like to bet on horses based on numerology, astrology, biorhythms, witchcraft, ESP, the quatrains of Nostradamus, divining rods, talismans, New Age crystals, pyramid power, the I Ching, tarot cards, voodoo, advice from a psychic, fortune teller, or shaman, palm reading, fortune cookies, tea leaves, a Magic 8 Ball, a crystal ball, a Ouija Board, dart throwing, jockey silk colors, flipping coins, or rolling dice, you might have selected and bet on Mine That Bird to win the Kentucky Derby. Why? Because you had no worse than a random 1 in 19 (the number of horses in the Kentucky Derby field this year) chance to end up with that otherwise unfathomable $103.20 upset winner.

If you didn't pick Mine That Bird to win the Kentucky Derby through the use of your regular handicapping methodology (which I assume is different from the ones listed above), there is a hidden benefit you might not have thought of. It is actually a positive sign for your future handicapping results. Although you didn't collect any money on the Kentucky Derby winner this year, you also probably won't be losing hundreds, or thousands of dollars in the future by betting on numerous horses who appear on paper to be hopelessly overmatched, and actually are overmatched when the race is run. You have the common sense to realize that horses like Mine That Bird don't win races very often, especially in huge fields. And on the very rare occasions when they do win, you understand that they deserve to pay prices closer to 200-1 than 50-1.

Most serious handicappers are familiar with the parimutuel takeout on the wagers they make. They must also overcome the rounding down of payoffs on their winning bets to the next lowest $.20 or $.10. But there is another obstacle for horse racing bettors to overcome that is usually overlooked. I call it the "zero outcome." Anyone who has bet on the game of roulette will recognize this concept. When the roulette ball lands on zero all of the money that was bet on red, black, odd, and even is quickly wiped off the board. They're all losing bets. The only winning bet is one that specifically is made on zero. In roulette the zero outcome significantly raises the odds against the roulette player.

Races like the 2009 Kentucky Derby are the horse racing equivalent of the zero outcome. They defy most, if not all, rational explanation. They are essentially an additional, unofficial takeout paid by rational handicappers.

When a handicapper examines a race and believes that a chaotic outcome is likely, he can either be conservative and play good defense with his bankroll, or be aggressive and play offense while looking for the home run. The defensive approach is to simply not bet on the race in question, which eliminates any possibility of experiencing the dreaded zero outcome. The aggressive strategy is to hope that the race will be unpredictable enough to make the horses in the lower and middle odds ranges vulnerable, while opening the race up for a longshot winner with subtle, but identifiable merits who could pay off at odds ranging from 15-1 through 40-1, or so.

To be fair, there was one logical way to select Mine That Bird. He was part of the field bet in all three pools of the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Futures Wager. I liked that bet in Pool 1, and although Mine That Bird paid a paltry $5.80 in that pool, the winning payoff includes something much more valuable than cash. It gives field bettors a legitimate right to mislead their friends by bragging that they bet on the winner of the Kentucky Derby. If you choose to play that game, don't stick around for very long after you tell them, because they'll probably expect you to pick up the tab for drinks and dinner when they believe you hit the jackpot, and your $5.80 payoff might not cover the cost of a single appetizer.