11/22/2001 1:00AM

Early vow for 2002: Swing for the fences


JAMAICA, N.Y. - With just over a month to go, I am up $530 at the windows for the year. I suppose I should be thankful to be ahead of the game at all, but it's really been kind of a frustrating season.

Considering all the time and effort that goes into my handicapping and betting, I could do better on a dollars-per-hour basis by scavenging the neighborhood trash bins for redeemable bottles and cans at a nickel an item. And there would be no risk of losing photos, being taken down on a borderline DQ's, or suffering through maddeningly indifferent rides.

I can remember holiday seasons as a teenager in the late 1970's when all I had to do was pick up a Daily Racing Form, handicap the card, and locate horses who were stretching out after beginning their form cycle with a pair of sprints; or those who were cutting back to seven furlongs after contesting the pace to deep stretch of two-turn routes. Presto, shopping money!

It was child's play to grind out a nice profit back in those days, and "grind" isn't even the right word because such a minimal amount of work was required. But the process certainly seems to have become increasingly difficult as time goes by. This is due to two primary factors:

1. The players who are left in the game are more well-informed than ever, thanks to many fine handicapping books, and greatly improved DRF past performances with Beyer Speed Figures, trainer stats, career totals, workout rankings, and so forth.

2. Thanks to year-round racing, polluted environments, space-age wonder drugs, and breeders' obsession with cheap speed, the late-model Thoroughbred is much more fragile than its predecessors, and becoming more so as we speak.

The result of the second factor is 21st century form cycles that often bear little resemblance to the nice, predictable lines of a sturdier horse from a bygone era.

Case in point, Speedway Sport, a 3-year-old colt who was scheduled to run in Friday's ninth race at Aqueduct.

Speedway Sport is not the type who gradually goes in and out of form. He was beaten by at least 11 lengths in four consecutive starts from May through August, and then suddenly won two straight races in late summer by battling for the lead the entire way.

Dropped puzzlingly in claiming price right after those two wins, Speedway Sport finished absolutely last in his next race, beaten by 29 1/2 lengths and virtually eased in deep stretch. Dropped again by nearly 50 percent in price a month later, Speedway Sport shrugged off early pace pressure to win by eight lengths . . . at a miserly 8-5.

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to which Speedway Sport was going to show up on Friday? Anyone feel confident about betting into that race?

Speedway Sport is hardly an isolated example. Looking over the prospective field for Saturday's Demoiselle earlier this week, the first contender that came under scrutiny was Blissful Kiss, a 2-year-old filly whose Beyer line, in chronological order concluding with the most recent, is 44-77-69-58-81. What the next number might be is anyone's guess: would a 43 be any more or less logical than a 93?

Blissful Kiss's two lifetime wins have come at 15-1 and 22-1, and her three defeats include one as the even-money favorite.

With so many in-and-outers running around out there these days, trying to grind out profits in the win pool is usually like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

Bowing to the new order of things, my betting resolution for 2002 is to forsake the grind-it-out mentality and concentrate on the big scores. This means that no less than 75 percent of my action will be earmarked for exotic bets, primarily the pick four, and occasionally the pick six when there is a big carryover or on big-race days when the sequence is full of stakes-caliber horses and the pools are swelled with money from once-a-year bettors.

As has been the case since its inception in New York in May, the pick four has, with the possible betting coup of Nov. 15 a notable exception, continued to offer consistent value at Aqueduct's fall/winter meet. Compare the parlay and pick four payoffs through the first 16 days.

If you happen to be one of the unfortunate souls who walked into the pick four of Nov. 15, when $148 of the $164 in winning tickets was funneled through Birmingham Race Course and Las Vegas, I feel your pain. But don't let that discourage you from attacking the pick four on a regular basis.

The pick four has returned more than the parlay on 13 out of 16 days. On several occasions the difference has been startling, notably the results from opening day; and on Nov. 3, 12, and 18, when the pick four paid nearly three times the parlay.

That is exactly the kind of value I need to find on a regular basis in 2002, if there is to be any hope of making this time well spent. It's either that or move to Michigan, where recyclable cans and bottles are worth 10 cents apiece.