02/10/2005 1:00AM

Future bet's pool is too empty

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NEW YORK - We have 84 days to figure out who's going to win the 131st Kentucky Derby, but a far less leisurely time frame to get down on Pool 1 of Derby Futures betting, which closes Sunday evening. There are two sure things about the bet:

* Most of the 23 horses available for individual wagers this weekend will be off the Derby trail by the big day.

* This bet would be a whole lot more fun if you could choose from more than 23 horses.

There are basically two ways to play the Derby Futures. The first is to be a contrarian, play the field, and say this is going to be another one of those years when the Derby winner is not one of the 23 top prospects as of Valentine's Day. This would have worked with Smarty Jones last year, and War Emblem in 2002, though not with Funny Cide, the longest shot in Pool 1 at 93-1 two years ago.

The advantage of this approach is that you're guaranteed three months of action and likely to end up with something like a 12-horse entry carrying your hopes on Derby Day. The disadvantages are that you're lucky to get 5-2 and you have to root against all 23 Pool 1 horses, a somewhat miserable way to spend the next 84 days.

The other approach is to find a Funny Cide, a horse you're convinced will be a bigger price now than on Derby Day. That actually worked with five of the seven Pool 1 horses who made it to the Derby starting gate a year ago. By betting early, you got 52-1 instead of 14-1 on Borrego, 14-1 instead of 5-1 on Lion Heart, 19-1 instead of 10-1 on Master David, 17-1 instead of 6-1 on Tapit, and 28-1 instead of 8-1 on The Cliff's Edge. All of these tickets were ultimately worthless, but at least you could have felt smart for a few minutes. Or at least smarter than those who had Birdstone at an early 12-1 when he was 21-1 on the board, or Read the Footnotes at his 14-1 Pool 1 odds instead of 22-1 at post time.

Birdstone and Read the Footnotes were coming off good-looking seasonal debuts on Pool 1 weekend last year, so perhaps the trick is to duck anyone who recently made a splash - a horse like Bandini, who has prompted much swooning off a nine-length allowance victory last weekend and was only 14-1 in Thursday's early futures betting. Huh? Any duckling can become a swan in the next 12 weeks, but why would you want less than 100-1 on a colt who earned a tepid 90 Beyer Speed Figure while running nearly a full second slower than the iffy group that contested the Holy Bull later that afternoon?

What you really want are some plausible 150-1 shots, but under the inadequate way that the Derby Futures are currently set up, you're never going to find those prices. What there really should be is betting on each of the 358 Triple Crown nominees and a field bet on "none of the above" for Lost in the Fog and any other possible late nominees. There is no good reason there are only 24 betting interests rather than 359.

The track defers to the tote companies, which say they are not equipped to handle so many betting interests. Nonsense. They do it every day with trifectas, superfectas, and pick-anythings, all of which offer hundreds, thousands, even millions of possible combinations. All they need do is assign each Derby Futures horse a three-digit betting code and treat the thing just like a trifecta or pick-three pool. Anyone who claims this would confuse the customers should spend five minutes in a Las Vegas sports book, where hundreds of games and propositions are assigned codes every day, and even people dopey enough to bet on football games seem to manage just fine.

With 359 betting interests, there would be gigantic prices all over the place and a reason for bettors to pay a lot more attention. Pool 1 would handle a lot more than the usual $500,000 or so, a rather anemic total considering the attention the wager gets and its four-day window. How much fun would it be to have a horse going for you on Derby Day at 2,000-1? And wouldn't it have been more fun to get 75-1 on Smarty Jones in last year's Pool 1 instead of getting him at $5.60 as part of the field?

If anyone can explain why this cannot be done, I will buy him a $20 Pool 1 ticket on Bandini at 14-1. On second thought, I'll just offer a point better and book it.