04/24/2002 11:00PM

Don't give Derby special treatment

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - Currently, I am about three-quarters of the way through "The Four Quarters of Horse Investing," the recently released book by Steve Fierro that lays out a step-by-step plan for approaching this game like a business instead of mere horseplay.

This is rather odd with a wide-open Kentucky Derby just a week away, because Fierro, who among other endeavors produces betting lines for Today's Racing Digest, stresses the majority of horseplayers devote far too much time to selecting contenders, which should really be only 25 percent of the entire process.

To paraphrase the most coldly realistic but absolutely on-the-money line in the book: "If your selection method doesn't get you to the contention of a race in five to seven minutes, you better get another one."

Does this strike a nerve among those who have been sorting out the sophomore class with all manner of esoterica ever since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile?

Feel free to examine the past performances of Harlan's Holiday, Came Home and Co. until the cows come home if that's what turns you on. But realize that when it comes to the Derby - and every other race - getting to the contention is only the first step.

At the heart of Fierro's book is an in-depth treatment of the construction of betting lines. If you liked Mark Cramer's "Value Handicapping" and Steve Crist's chapter on value in DRF's "Bet With The Best," this absolutely essential subject is taken further as Fierro spells out tactics for reducing the subjectivity in the art/pseudo-science of line-making. Chief among them is the use of "templates," which are ingenious, ready-made odds configurations to be used depending on the type of race at hand.

The race at hand these days is the Kentucky Derby, and 99 percent of folks acquainted with a public handicapper could care less about the intricacies of attaching value to contenders, as in: "Spare us all your theories, Dave, who do you like?

They miss the point, as has been the case from Aristides to Mon-archos. For all its hoopla the most exciting two minutes in sports should be approached by regular players as just one more race, no more and no less. Sure it would be nice to give out the winner and secure bragging rights. But if you are betting 5 percent of bankroll and your bankroll stands at $1,000, then $50 is what should be at stake in the Derby.

Or perhaps nothing should be at stake if no horse meets your minimum odds requirement. Whatever you decide to do with the Derby, set the odds fairly high on whoever you feel is the likeliest winner. Consider-ing that probable favorite Harlan's Holiday has no speed-figure edge and would be the first Ohio-bred to win since Wintergreen in 1909, starting at 6-1 and working your way up seems realistic.

(More info about "Four Quarters of Horse Investing" is available by calling (888) 896-0453.)

Importance of staying current

It's natural to skim over page-filling stuff like "Abbreviations and Purse Value Index for North American Tracks" when it regularly appears in the pages of this newspaper. But be advised that the tables have just been updated and contain some significant revisions due to changing political or economic climates at some tracks, and as a result your assessment of shippers may also need some sprucing up.

Among the most notable changes is the West Virginia circuit, where slots have nearly tripled the average purse at Charles Town from $5,000 to $14,000, and nearly doubled them ($8,000 to $15,000) at Mountaineer Park.

Also on an upward trend is New Jersey: The Meadowlands went from $27,000 to $37,000; Monmouth Park from $30,000 to $37,000.

The average allowance purse at Woodbine, which stood at $34,000 as recently as two years ago, has ballooned to $52,000 thanks to the installation of slot machines. That's a nice chunk of change, even if it is Canadian dollars.

Aqueduct turf update

Speed horses ran amok on Aqueduct's hair-pinned turf course during the 2001 spring meet, but they have not fared nearly as well during the first two weeks of grass racing in New York.

Of 40 turf races last year, 15 (37 percent) were won by the horse on the lead at the pace call (after six furlongs, midway on the far turn). More than half (22) were won by those either first or second at the pace call, and nearly two-thirds (26) occupied one of the first three positions at that point.

The Big A's first 21 turf races of 2002 have been won by horses of another color. No pace-call leader has been able to survive to the wire thus far. Only three (14 percent) were second at the pace call, and just five (24 percent) were in the top three at that point.