03/01/2002 12:00AM

Futures riskier than you think

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - There are optimists. There are extreme optimists. And then there are the people I spoke with who bet on Pool 1 of this year's Kentucky Derby Futures wager.

I participated in a Futures wagering seminar at Trackside Louisville, Churchill's off-track wagering facility, two weeks ago, and chatted with a few attendees afterward. Since then, I've also spoken with a number of friends and fans. I asked all of them the same two questions: Whom did you play in Pool 1, and why was he a good bet?

If the bettors I spoke with are correct, something quite remarkable is going to happen this year. Apparently, all 23 of the horses listed as individual betting interests in Pool 1 are going to win their next two starts. I guess we should be expecting a large number of dead heats.

The standard reply went something like this, "I bet on [fill in the name of a 40-1 longshot] because if he wins his next two Derby prep races, he'll be a much lower price in the Derby."

A few questions come to mind: Isn't two straight wins a tall order for most 40-1 longshots? Does that angle apply only to the horse they selected? Wouldn't the odds on any Derby contender who wins his next two races probably be lower on Derby day than they were in Pool 1? If the only way the horse in question can become an overlay is to win his next two races, doesn't that suggest he is an underlay unless, and until that happens? Some of these horses would probably be 20-1, or more to win a major Derby prep race. Wouldn't a win parlay on his next two races pay much more than the 40-1 potential Pool 1 Derby payoff, without even having to worry about winning the Derby?

Don't get me wrong. I'm willing to keep an open mind while considering the potential betting value of any 40-1 longshot, but many of the people I spoke with didn't seem to fully appreciate the difference between a horse who is 40-1 on race day, and a horse who is 40-1 in a futures pool, 2 1/2 months before the race.

On race day, you know that your horse either will run or your money will be refunded if he scratches. With up-to-date past performances available, there are no surprises.

You know what your horse has done in all of the recent races leading up to this one, and you also know how all of his opponents have performed. If your longshot looks like a legitimate contender when all of the cards are sitting face-up on the table, 40-1 is great betting value.

Futures are much riskier. Your horse's chances are likely either to peak or plummet more than once between now and the first Saturday in May. Any time he or any of his most serious rivals race his chances of winning must be re-evaluated.

And don't underestimate the human factor. The horse's connections, rather than the horse, might turn out to be the weak link in the chain. Horses run fluky bad races, then rebound next time out in similar spots every racing day at tracks throughout the country. But if that dull race happens to have been delivered by a Derby contender trying an unfamiliar distance, or stepping up in class, he may not be offered the second chance he needs to prove that race was just a fluke. Many owners and trainers, fearful of the criticism they might encounter for giving their horse the benefit of the doubt under adverse conditions, surrender their Derby dreams with little or no resistance. If all it takes is one sub-par race to knock your otherwise promising Futures horse off of the Derby trail, your minimum required odds should be adjusted upwards accordingly.

When all of the dust settled, I made only a token $50 wager on Request for Parole in Pool 1, much less than my smallest play last year. Why do I like him? Because he finished only 1 1/4 lengths behind Repent at Churchill in his last 2001 start. He ran a solid race to win his comeback at Turfway, and should improve off that effort. I believe that he was probably a modest overlay at 58-1.

Request for Parole was scheduled to run in the John Battaglia Memorial, a Derby prep run at Turfway on Saturday. I like his chances. After all, he is bound to win his next two races, isn't he?