05/10/2006 11:00PM

Dissecting Derby Day's odd betting

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NEW YORK - There is plenty of strange and unexpected human behavior at the Kentucky Derby every year, from the infield to Millionaire's Row, but some of the strangest took place on the tote board, where the public rebelled against the morning line and conventional wisdom as never before.

The three morning-line favorites - Brother Derek at 3-1 and Barbaro and Lawyer Ron at 4-1 - all went off at significantly higher prices, starting respectively at 7-1, 6-1, and 10-1. Instead of taking what was predicted as half the action, they accounted for just a combined 29 percent. Sweetnorthernsaint, the fourth choice on the line at 10-1, started as the 5-1 favorite. Meanwhile, despite 20 separate betting interests, only three horses went off at better than 43-1 and the highest price was Deputy Gltters's 60-1.

This is not a knock on Mike Battaglia's morning line, on which the eight horses he listed at 15-1 or lower ended up as the eight top betting choices and went off between 5-1 and 14-1. Nor was anyone saying before the race that the odds were crazy and Sweetnorthernsaint deserved to be favored. The combined wisdom of the crowd, however, was that this was more than a three-horse race and that almost nobody was too crazy to be given a shot.

To some extent this continues a Triple Crown trend that began with the Giacomo-Closing Argument Derby finish a year ago at 50-1 and 70-1. Horses who looked 50-1 or higher went off at half that price in last year's Preakness and Belmont. The monstrous payoffs triggered by last year's Derby still linger in the collective memory, leading not only to the wide dispersal of money in the win pool but to some impressive wagering numbers this year.

While network television ratings were down, supposedly because of a lack of prerace star power, both on- and offtrack betting were significantly higher than a year ago. Combined win, place, and show betting increased from $42.2 million to $49.6 million. Among the intrarace exotics, the exacta pool went from $19.1 million to $23 million, the trifecta from $22.1 to $27 million, and the superfecta from $7.4 million to $8.7 million.

The multirace bets ending with the Derby showed even greater growth, thanks in part to some healthy guarantees that were easily met and exceeded. The pick three soared from $842,878 to $1.4 million, the pick four from $2.2 million to $2.6 million, and the pick six from $776,278 to $1.2 million. Even the Woodford Reserve-Derby double went from $670,023 to $771,742 while the two-day Oaks-Derby double surged from $1.6 million to $2.2 million. In total, betting on these 11 pools went from $97.2 million to $116.8 million, a 20 percent jump.

The intrarace payoffs were mostly generous. The Barbaro-Bluegrass Cat exacta figured to pay about $450 but came back $587. The triple adding Steppenwolfer should have paid about $7,800 based on the win odds but returned $11,418.40. The superfectas were skewed because of the dead heat for fourth between Brother Derek and Jazil, and were remarkable primarily because they were so close together - $59,839.00 with the 3-1 morning-line favorite fourth and only $84,860.40 with Jazil, 30-1 on the line and 24-1 at post time.

The multirace payoffs were a bit short. The pick four of Mirabilis ($12), Pussycat Doll ($10), English Channel ($9), and Barbaro ($14.20) was stingy at $1,534.80, given that the parlay was $1,917, but this happens when a series of second and third choices win - good news for the $36 players who went 3x3x2x2, less so for those of us smart enough to get alive to 14 horses in the Derby. Same story with the $266.80 pick three, which paid less than the $319.50 parlay.

It was a rare day of both superb betting and racing, with Barbaro's authoritative victory leaving little room for postrace second-guessing or complaining. It will be interesting to see if the public is still in a contrary, spread-it-out mood at Pimlico next Saturday. Barbaro looks like a legitimate odds-on favorite, and it will take a strong contrarian streak to oppose him with any confidence or enthusiasm.

The one thing that could have made Derby Day betting even more fun would have been for Churchill to permit dime superfecta wagering. The superfecta is simply too expensive a bet for most people to play as more than a short-stacked stab in a 20-horse field, but reducing the cost tenfold could make it everyone's Holy Grail. Track management's concern over tying up betting lines could be better addressed by offering ontrack dime supers only on self-service machines, rather than shutting out the offtrack bettors who now account for more than 85 percent of the day's handle.