02/21/2003 12:00AM

Field of dreams (and such a deal)

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NEW YORK - The season's first Kentucky Derby Future Wager closed last weekend with the so-called mutuel field of 425 horses - everyone except the 23 top-ranked prospects that could be bet individually - the solid 2.20-1 favorite and Badge of Silver the second choice at 11.30-1. Players set these odds despite strong advice from several quarters, including at least two major daily newspapers and one television network, that playing the Futures field is a knuckleheaded bet.

One advisor came to this conclusion because War Emblem paid $43 on Derby Day and only $7.60 as part of the Pool 1 field last year. Another said a Derby bet in the 2-1 range was a bad idea because only one Derby winner in the last

20 years had paid that little.

Who's right? The public, by a walkover. The Pool 1 field at $7.60 turned out to be an excellent bet last year, not because it won but because those who took it had outstanding equity and effectively got $7.60 on a proposition that would have returned $3 at the windows. The same value may well exist this year for those who stand to collect $6.40 on the Pool 1 field.

Those who bet the field last February were not taking 5-2 on War Emblem or saying they thought the Derby would be won by a short-priced horse. They were betting against the collective group of 23 horses who looked like the leading prospects. A bet on the field is simply a bet on none of the above.

It's an intriguing proposition whether or not you're betting.

A generation ago, when the Derby was routinely won by one of the top 2-year-olds of the previous year and often by the juvenile champion, it might have been a close call whether something in the neighborhood of 5-2 was a fair price on None.

The game has changed, with only the flat-earthers who still search for "dual qualifiers" in denial. The American Thoroughbred is more fragile than ever and breeders coronate and retire eight-digit stallions after weeks of flash rather than years of excellence. The Derby winner is as likely to emerge from obscurity weeks before the race as from the list of top juveniles on the Experimental Handicap.

Last year's lineups in the various Futures fields are a perfect illustration not only of this phenomenon but also of the resulting value received by those who kept betting on None.

Of the 23 horses listed individually in Pool 1, eight were off the Derby trail by Pool 2 (Cappuchino, Fonz's, Grey Beard, King's Consul, Maybry's Boy, Pelirrojo, Political Attack, and Stephentown). Another five dropped off by Pool 3 (High Star, Nokoma, Saratoga Blues, Siphonic, and Tempera). That left 10 of the originals, and half of those went by the wayside by Derby Day (Booklet, Danthebluegrassman, Easyfromthegitgo, Repent, and U S S Tinosa).

So by post time, just five of the 23 were in the gate: Came Home

(8-1 on Derby Day), Harlan's Holiday (6-1), Johannesburg (8-1), Request for Parole (29-1), and Saarland (6-1). If anyone else won, the Pool 1 field was the winner. Bettors holding tickets on None in Pool 1 effectively got

$7.60 on the 13-horse entry of "everyone else." If you had dutched all 13 of those horses in the win pool on Derby Day, you could have gotten only a $3 return.

It got even better if you had kept the faith through Pool 2. There were eight new horses you had to keep out of the winner's circle - Blue Burner, Easy Grades, Essence of Dubai, Mayakovsky, Perfect Drift, Showmeitall, Sunday Break, and Yougottawanna. As it turned out, only Blue Burner, Easy Grades, Perfect Drift, and Essence of Dubai made it to the race. So on Derby Day, you were getting 7-1 on a 9-horse entry of everyone except those four and the five Pool 1 survivors.

By Pool 3, the price on the reconstituted field rose to 11-1 as seven new horses moved above the line, including three who would make the race - Castle Gandolfo, Medaglia d'Oro, and Private Emblem. If you continued to be stubborn, you ended up with 11-1 on Derby Day but now with only a six-horse entry. Four of them - Lusty Latin, Itsallinthechase, Ocean Sound, and Wild Horses - ran 15-16-17-18 in the 18-horse field. The other two, War Emblem and Proud Citizen, ran one-two.

All three None bets turned out to be good ones even before the gates opened. You ended up getting either 5-2 on a 13-horse entry that accounted for 56 percent of the Derby Day win pool; 7-1 on a nine-horse entry that totaled 35 percent of that pool; or 11-1 on a six-horse entry that combined for 15 percent of that pool - all solid overlays, even after takeout.

Playing the Futures field is about creating this kind of positive expectation situations for yourself, not about liking a War Emblem in February. If you took $6.40 in Pool 1 this year, you're a winner if you end up with a batch of horses on Derby Day that you probably haven't even heard of yet, but whose combined chances by then exceed 32 percent. And if you think one of them is an overlay at 20-1, as War Emblem was last year, there's no law that you can't go back and bet him, too.