02/13/2003 12:00AM

Derby winner hiding among top 23


ARCADIA, Calif. - Pickings were slim last year in Pool 1 of the 2002 Kentucky Derby Future Wager. The crop was weak, and the 23 individual horses left much to be desired.

Johannesburg, 2-year-old champ, was back home, training for the Kentucky Derby while somewhere in Europe. Siphonic already had bombed in his first start of the season. Saarland was still a slow horse, and weeks away from a comeback. Booklet and Came Home had obvious distance limitations. Tempera was a filly, for crying out loud. One year ago, finding a reasonable Derby candidate among the 23 runners was a fool's chase.

For the majority of Pool 1 bettors, there was only one sensible wager to make - "all others," good old number 24, encompassing every horse not listed. The all-others field closed favored at 5-2, as bettors accepted the notion chaos was likely to govern the Derby. Ultimately, it did. War Emblem, not listed in any Future Wager pool, raced gate to wire. Neither was Derby runner-up Proud Citizen nor third-place finisher Perfect Drift listed in Pool 1. These fresh memories are what bettors will consider this weekend when wagering on Pool 1 of the 2003 Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

However, the dynamics are different this time around. History may or may not apply. The dilemma is deciding if the goofball result last year (or 1999 when Charismatic was not listed in any pool) is relevant to 2003. One might even wonder if four years of Future Wager history provides sufficient evidence on which to base an intelligent opinion. Probably not. And yet, largely because of chaotic results in two of the four years, the suggestion has been made that bettors simply accept whatever price is offered on the field, and leave it at that.

It is a high-percentage play. The first four years of the Future Wager, the winner emerged from the field in six of 12 pools (Charismatic and War Emblem). In 2000 and 2001, however, Derby winners Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos were listed in every pool, despite sketchy early-season credentials. When Pool 1 closed, Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos were nothing more than unseasoned colts who had won a first-condition allowance. There are a lot of those this year. Five of the 23 on the Pool 1 list are allowance winners with no stakes experience going into the weekend - Badge of Silver, Indy Dancer, Lion Tamer, Seattle Hoofer, and Senor Swinger.

The potential stars that make up this year's initial list of 23 bears little resemblance to the ragamuffins of 2002. Thank goodness. Juvenile champion Vindication is already gone. There are no buck-the-odds Europeans to consider, and Godolphin has done nothing to suggest this will be the year it will win the Derby. This year, there are no Kentucky Oaks fillies to plug holes on the Derby list; undefeated Storm Flag Flying was not even nominated to the Triple Crown.

This year, the list is stronger, and marked with lightly raced allowance types similar to the February form of Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos. These are unseasoned, unproven colts with potential to bloom this weekend in Florida and Louisiana, and in coming months in California, New York, and Kentucky. Even beyond the brilliance of Badge of Silver, Domestic Dispute, Kafwain, and Sky Mesa, the list is filled with upside.

Atswhatimtalknbout, Badge of Silver, Indy Dancer, Seattle Hoofer, and Senor Swinger each has raced only twice. Room to improve? Of course. The same applies to three-start "veterans" Empire Maker, Lion Tamer, Ministers Wild Cat, Sky Mesa, and Ten Cents a Shine. In fact, 12 of the 23 horses on the list have raced four times or fewer. The sky is the limit. With the possible exception of Toccet, there are not many burnouts.

This is not to suggest there are no weak spots. There are, just fewer of them. In past years, part of the attraction in wagering on the field was a handicapper could bet against all disliked horses in one fell swoop. Attrition usually took care of the rest. Yet this year, the strategy is less likely to succeed, even while the field probably will start at the lowest odds in the five-year history of the Future Wager. The price goes down every year - 5-2 last year was the lowest yet.

Furthermore, the bet-againsts on the current list are not likely to attract enough wagering action to make it worthwhile to bet against them. Horses such as Apalachian Thunder, Ozzie Cat, Peace Rules, and Siberland would qualify as bet-againsts, except they are longshots anyway. To wager against a horse, a bettor must insist the horse attracts sufficient action to justify a negative stand.

Four years of Future Wager history suggests a 50 percent chance the Derby winner is still out there somewhere. And yet, four years of history also suggests the Derby winner has been identified already, and included among the 23 individual runners.

Bettors who wager on the all-others field have valid reasons. However, the powerful roster that is the 23-runner Pool 1 group of 2003 is nothing like rosters of years past. In all likelihood, the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner is somewhere on the list.

All a bettor has to do now is find him.