01/04/2002 1:00AM

Don't bottom out on overbet top trainers

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Lexington, Ky. - When popular trainers who have enjoyed success over the years at Churchill and Keeneland choose to run a horse during the less prestigious Holiday, or Winter portion of the Winter/Spring meet at Turfway, that horse is probably going to be among the top contenders in his field. But that doesn't mean he is worth betting on. In fact, the smartest move is to try to beat him with a solid contender trained by someone who has less name recognition.

One of the most difficult concepts for most handicappers to grasp is that it is nearly impossible to make a profit betting on the most popular trainers on their favorite circuit. That disadvantage is compounded when a track switch is understood to represent a drop into a softer field at the same class level.

I have taught a number of my friends, who were new to horse racing, how to handicap. Given raw recruits starting out with no bad habits, I've been able to get them to accept that idea most of the time.

But experienced handicappers are tougher to convince. Much tougher. I'd meet less resistance if I offered to take a Taliban leader to a Britney Spears concert.

A close look at the statistics from the recently completed Holiday meeting at Turfway, which ran from Nov. 25 through Dec. 31, helps to illustrate why betting on popular trainers is a luxury that most bettors can't afford. Of the top 10 trainers in the standings, Bernie Flint, Paul McGee, and Dale Romans showed the lowest average win payoffs. They are widely respected, and for good reason. But despite their considerable talents, they were unable to meet the lofty expectations of bettors who routinely hammered their horses down to unrealistically low odds.

Flint enjoyed a marvelous Turfway Holiday meeting. He won with 37 percent of his 46 starters. No trainer was hotter. You might think that his fans would be rich beyond their dreams, but that isn't the case. It turns out that 15 of Flint's 17 winners were sent off as the favorite.

They paid an average of only $5.02 each. It works out to a $1.86 return per $2 bet, for a seven percent loss. And what happens when Flint cools off? His horses finished in the money 54 percent of the time, slightly higher than his usual rate of 48 percent. But his 37 percent win rate was way above his 20 percent winning average for most of 2001. It seems he is bound to come down to something closer to his 20 percent win rate during the Winter/Spring meeting - and when he does, those winners at average odds of 3-2 will be huge underlays.

McGee won with five of 27 starters during the Holiday meeting, a 19 percent win rate. His clients had every reason to be satisfied. But it was a different story for bettors. Three of his winners were favorites, and the other two paid modest prices as well. Five winners at $5.76 per winner is a $28.80 return on $54 bet, for a low $1.07 ROI.

Romans saddled five winners from 33 starters. But four of them were favored. His $6.04 average win payoff yielded $30.20 in win payoffs. But it cost $66 to bet on all 33 of those races. That's a return of only 91 cents for every $2 bet.

Turfway is starting fresh with the Winter/ Spring meet. The Holiday meet stats won't count toward those totals. But the same betting patterns should apply. Avoid the most popular trainers, and you won't have to say "Oops! I did it again."