02/13/2002 1:00AM

Future Wagering do's and don'ts


NEW YORK - By the third week of February, there is not yet such thing as an expert on the Kentucky Derby. There are some who stab at an opinion and there are many more who guess. But, having yet to meet anyone who can consistently predict 2 1/2 months into the future, full disclosure requires me to tell you that, right now, certified experts on the Kentucky Derby don't exist. And, if you meet someone who claims he is, run the other way as fast as you can. He's probably been without his medication too long.

This is true every year, when sudden emergence, loss of form, or injury has a profound impact on who will eventually be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. But it is even more the case this year. Siphonic had excuses when beaten in the Santa Catalina in his first start this year. Still, if he was the horse a lot of us thought he was after his Hollywood Futurity, he would have overcome adversity to, if not win, at least not have been beaten as soundly as he was.

Look at Repent. Yes, he was nine days the best when he won the Kentucky Jockey Club, but let's not forget, he was 42-1 when second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for a reason.

And then there is Johannesburg. He was named Europe's champion 2-year-old of last year and will be named this country's champion 2-year-old of 2001 at the Eclipse Awards Dinner next week on the strength of his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But will Johannesburg even run in the Derby? If he shows enough stamina in his training in Ireland, he will be pointed for it. If not, he will go for the 2000 Guineas. Either way, his trainer, Aidan O'Brien, is so traditionally close-mouthed that we probably won't know until the last minute.

Then, if Johannesburg does point for the Derby, will he have a suitable series of prep races? And, even if all of that is answered in a positive way, there is the not-so-little fact that Johannesburg will be attempting to do what no other horse has accomplished. No Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has won the Derby.

When you consider that Siphonic, Repent, and Johannesburg are widely considered to be the leading contenders for this year's Derby, you can easily imagine how questions multiply among Derby aspirants who fall in line behind them. Even at this early stage, this year's Derby looks more wide open than usual.

Welcome, my friends, to the uncertain world of the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

So, knowing the many risks involved, what is it that is still so appealing about the Derby Future Wager? What is it about this bet that makes horseplayers who don't normally bet any further in advance than the first leg of the pick three, pick four, or pick six, and who look for other wagering opportunities when so many questions abound, suddenly weak in the knees? Simply put, it is tremendous fun. There are few other wagers that are more potentially rewarding to the ego, not to mention pocket, than making future wagers on the Kentucky Derby.

Since the Future Wager will be available in new markets this year, most notably in California, this is a good time to revisit some of the rules, and some of the do's and don'ts that have been learned over the first three years of the Future Wager.

There are three separate rounds of the Future Wager, each running four days, from Thursday through Sunday. Pool 1 starts this week, from Feb. 14-17, coinciding with such important early Derby preps as the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star. Pool 2 is on March 14-17, during which time such critical races as the Florida Derby, San Felipe, Tampa Bay Derby, and Gotham Stakes will be run. Pool 3 goes from April 4-7, coinciding with the Santa Anita and Illinois Derbys.

Like last year, Pool 3 will be conducted a week before the big Saturday of Derby preps that includes the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby. The impact of this scheduling will really be felt this year, now that California is participating in the Future Wager. Results of the nine previous Future Wager pools have shown that the closing odds are significantly impacted by the Derby preps run during the betting period. So look for horses running well in the Santa Anita Derby to be relative underlays compared with those who will have yet to run in the Wood, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby.

As for what to bet on, there are 23 horses selected for each pool by a panel as individual betting interests, and a mutuel field consisting of all other 3-year-olds. There are no refunds if an individual betting interest is declared out of the Derby after wagering opens.

Betting on the Future Wager begins at noon, Eastern, on each day. But, one change this year is that there will be an additional hour of betting on Sundays, when pools will close at 5:30 p.m., Eastern. This will give bettors extra time to assess the Derby preps that will be run on Sundays during the Future Wager pool periods.

This additional hour is also critical because, if a cardinal rule has been established with the Future Wager, it is to wait until Sunday to make your bets, and the later on Sunday, the better. On average, half of the Future Wager handle comes in during the final hours of betting on Sunday. Don't forget, this is a parimutuel future wager. So, by waiting, you will have a much better sense of what the closing odds will be, and you will greatly reduce the risk of getting stuck with 10-1 on a horse you didn't want less than 20-1 on.

In addition, by waiting until Sunday, you will have a day to assess the results of preps that were run the day before, such as the Fountain of Youth in Pool 1, Florida Derby in Pool 2, and Santa Anita Derby in Pool 3. By waiting, you will give yourself a chance to learn of injuries, or of horses who raced themselves out of the Derby picture, or to determine hidden, sneaky-good performances that may lead to playable overlays.

Speaking of playable Future Wager bets, it is my firm opinion that wagering on the field is not one of them, even in a Derby year as wide open as this one appears to be.

The field was successful, if you want to call it that, in the first year if the Future Wager in 1999, but it was by no means a value win. The field paid $10.20 in Pool 1 that year, $30.20 in Pool 2, and $26.60 in Pool 3, but Charismatic, who was a member of the field in each of those Pools, paid $64.60 on the day of the Derby.

The following year, Fusaichi Pegasus was an individual betting interest in all three pools, and he paid more in all three pools than the $6.60 he returned on Derby Day. In the first two pools, he paid about four times as much as he did Derby Day. Now that was value.

Last year, Monarchos was also an individual betting interest in all three pools.

While the Future Wager selection panel is far from infallible (yes, I am a member), the panel does select the 23 individual betting interests that are, at the time, the best of Derby prospects. So, while a field horse may emerge as the winner of the Derby, it is very likely his odds in the Derby will be much higher on Derby Day than as a member of the field in the Future Wager. That's because he will be standing alone on Derby Day against other individual betting interests. That became emphatically the case last year, when couplings and pari-mutuel entries were done away with in the Derby itself, and every Derby starter became an individual betting interest. Without entries and fields to suppress odds, the few horses that emerge from the field in Pool 1 to actually start in the Derby will probably be 10 to 20 times the price on Derby Day than the 5-1 or 6-1 they are likely to be as members of the field in Pool 1.

At the same time, with every entrant in the Kentucky Derby being an individual betting interest, it also doesn't make a lot of sense to jump all over the most strongly backed individual betting interests in the Future Wager Pools. Monarchos provided an example of this last year. He paid $13.00 as the favorite in Pool 2 and $15.80 as the second choice in Pool 3, but he paid $23.00 on Derby Day. That was due in part to his loss in the Wood Memorial, which took place after Pool 3 closed. But, it was also largely due to the fact that he was one of so many other individual betting interests in the Derby itself.

The blueprint for success in the Future Wager, especially in the potentially more rewarding early Pools, can be found with Monarchos in Pool 1 last year ($36.40), and in Fusaichi Pegasus in Pools 1 and 2 in 2000 ($27.80 and $26.40, respectively). Those horses in those pools personified obviously talented, highly promising, but still unproven prospects. And in the end, they represented great value. There are several in Pool 1 this year who look somewhat like Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos did at this stage of the game. The trick is finding the right one, and if you do, it will be very satisfying, not only monetarily, but intellectually as well.