10/30/2006 12:00AM

Finding false favorites in the Breeders' Cup


While most horseplayers are hoping to find the right longshots to spice up their Breeders' Cup plays, there is another important handicapping exercise that deserves equal time: evaluating the legitimacy of the betting favorite.

In Breeders' Cup races - or in races for $5,000 maiden claimers - the betting favorite sometimes towers over its opponents. On other occasions, however, the public's assessment may be skewed by hype or happenstance. Obviously, if you can spot form faults, or have good reason to doubt the winning credentials of a public betting choice, that could reinforce your decision to play another contender or longshot.

It is a well-known statistic that public betting choices tend to win about 30 to 33 percent of the time, while the second betting choice tends to win about 18 percent. Yet whenever there is a vulnerable favorite (or second betting choice) in a given field, the parimutuel effect is akin to having substantial dead money in the win pool. Indeed, when a vulnerable favorite really should be a longshot, the dead money wagered on its behalf neutralizes the 15 to 20 percent takeout imposed on all wagers. This in turn usually produces fair odds on other contenders in the field. The trick, of course, is to have a good reason to downgrade the winning chances of horses with seemingly strong credentials.

For instance, if the 2-1 betting favorite in a maiden claiming race has run second in his last three outings at the same level, it would be reasonable to conclude that such a horse had wasted winning chances. Moreover, such a horse now may be vulnerable to a horse dropping from a higher class of maiden claiming, or to a well-prepped first-time starter, or even a horse with only one prior outing who is adding blinkers, or Lasix, etc.

On the opposite end of the class spectrum, it is possible to argue that some or all Breeders' Cup races will have vulnerable betting favorites, for reasons explained below:

H There may be a tricky pace scenario that will force the favorite or favorites to run harder or wider.

Pace certainly could be a major issue in the BC Sprint, where the flashy 3-year-old Henny Hughes is sure to face extra early pressure from longshot speedster Attila's Storm and second choice Bordonaro, who may be inherently faster. While Henny Hughes hardly is a hopeless longshot, he will have to overcome the pace predicament to justify his relatively short odds.

H The favorite may have no discernible edge over a field loaded with fit and ready rivals.

In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, for example, morning-line favorite Circular Quay and second choice Principle Secret are both promising youngsters with good efforts at the Juvenile's 1 1/16-mile distance. But there is little separating them from a large contingent of lightly raced, improving contenders. These include graded stakes winners Great Hunter, Scat Daddy, King of the Roxy, and Stormello, as well as graded-stakes-placed Pegasus Wind, C P West, and Street Sense. Given the depth of competition, taking anything less than 5-1 on either Circular Quay or Principle Secret would seem to violate all sensible rules of value betting.

H The favorite may have seen his best days, or may be seeking to reverse poor recent form.

In the BC Turf this year, the morning-line favorite's recent performances should raise doubts about his current condition. Specifically, as good as the European Hurricane Run was earlier in the year, he comes to Churchill Downs with three straight defeats, including the two weakest performances of his career in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 1 and the Champion Stakes on Oct. 14. This raises at least two questions: Was Hurricane Run sent to the BC Turf as a mere afterthought? Or, is he over the top? In either case, Hurricane Run would appear to be a vulnerable favorite.

Still another issue on Breeders' Cup Day is the relatively large fields of talented opponents, which all by themselves diminish the winning chances of any seemingly legitimate, albeit seriously overbet, favorite.

In the $5 million BC Classic, in which Bernardini looks to be the best horse and perhaps the least vulnerable favorite on the card, such optimism should be tempered substantially if the crowd bets him down to the dust while showing abject disdain for the quality of his competition in the 14-horse field.

Although Bernardini has overpowered his rivals in the Preakness, Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, the 2006 BC Classic hardly will be a walkover. Even discounting the longshot chances of Perfect Drift and Sun King, who have finished in the money several times in Grade 1 events, this Classic has several proven Grade 1 winners, including Lava Man, Invasor, George Washington, and David Junior.

Lava Man has won seven straight this year, including four Grade 1's.

Invasor, absent for more than two months, has lost only one race in his nine-race career, the 2006 UAE Derby to the sensational Discreet Cat. Other than that, Invasor won five races in Uruguay last year and three Grade 1's in America this year - the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, and Whitney Handicap - while he was forced to overcome assorted problems. That is quite a resume for a horse who is sure to go to the post at inflated odds in the face of the heavy betting favorite.

George Washington, the top European miler this year, certainly is a high-class horse. Although he is a question mark at 10 furlongs on dirt, George Washington is an improving 3-year-old with considerable presence who has four Group 1 victories in his nine-race career. If able to handle the new conditions, he surely will be a formidable foe.

David Junior, one of the top distance specialists in Europe for the past two years, also will be making his dirt debut in this rich race. As a successful world traveler with many terrific performances, who is to say he will not push the highly regarded Bernardini to the ultimate test?

Fact is, every favorite on the Breeders' Cup card is going to face a large field of horses with some races on their resumes that could put them in the thick of the contest. Putting this another way, no favorite on the Breeders' Cup menu should be considered anything more than a serious contender, not even the classy, seemingly invincible Bernardini. While a favorite may ultimately win a BC race, there are very few cinch plays at this level of competition.