05/09/2002 12:00AM

In Futures, smart money's on the 24


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Most bettors who invested in the 2002 Kentucky Derby Future Wager are trying to forget Round 1.

Only five of the 23 individual horses from Round 1 (Feb. 14-17) made it to the Derby, and their post time odds illustrated the absurdity of trying to find the winner nearly three months in advance.

Only one of the five ended up offering reasonable value. Harlan's Holiday closed at 17-1 in Round 1, almost three times his 6-1 Derby odds. Otherwise, Round 1 turned out a waste for bettors focusing on a single horse.

Johannesburg was 7-1 in Round 1; his Derby odds were higher - 8-1. Saarland was 11-1 in Round 1; he ran poorly in two preps and closed at 6-1 in the Derby. Came Home was 14-1 in Round 1; subsequent efforts suggested he had little chance going 1 1/4 miles, and he closed at 8-1 in the Derby. Finally, Request for Parole was 58-1 in Round 1, and was still a longshot at 29-1 in the Derby. No bargains.

For the second time in four years, the Derby winner was not listed individually in any of the three Future pools (it was the same for Charismatic in 1999).

The last five Derby winners include two who in early January had yet to win a race (Monarchos and Fusaichi Pegasus). Another had lost at Santa Fe Downs as a 2-year-old (Real Quiet); yet another lost a claiming race three months before winning the Derby (Charismatic). Finally, this year, the winner was a horse whose claim to fame was a loose-on-the-lead victory at Sportsman's Park (War Emblem).

Handicappers can forget about the dual-qualifier approach that identified contenders for so many years. Forget about extended campaigns. In Derby handicapping, class, and seasoning no longer transcend speed figures. Three months before the race, Derby handicapping is nothing more than a crapshoot.

So is there any reason to wager on Round 1 of the Derby Future Wager next year?

There is. So long as bettors continue seeking individual horses as likely winners, future wager pools may offer value. Most handicappers remain unwilling to accept chaos as an alternative factor. Bettors still try to make money by picking winners. The approach simply does not work.

The notion that an impossibly difficult proposition such as the Derby Future Wager still offers value sounds contradictory. But it does. Value can be found, often, by wagering on No. 24 - "all others."

No. 24 has been the winner in six of the 12 Derby Future Wager pools. It encompasses every late bloomer with Derby aspirations. In February, who had heard of Medaglia d'Oro or Buddha? Who knew about War Emblem and Proud Citizen? No one. But they were out there. No. 24 had them covered.

This year in particular, a bettor might have recognized the deficiency of the Round 1 list. The favorite, Johannesburg, was in Europe and not bred for 1 1/4 miles. Second favorite Siphonic had already lost his first start of the year, exiting the race with questions about his health. Repent and Saarland, third and fourth choices, seemed reasonable, but fifth choice Came Home was another who was bred short. The Round 1 list was weak.

That is, except for No. 24. In February, it seemed possible, even likely, that the Derby winner was yet undiscovered. It was probable that the Derby winner was not listed among the 23 individual runners. The question was determining a fair price on "all others," an entry that amounted to hundreds of 3-year-olds.

The value dilemma is always open to individual interpretation. But by assigning probability percentages to each of the 13 starters in the 2002 Derby who were not listed in Future Wager Round 1, those horses combined would have been even-money or less, not the 2.80-1 they closed at in Round 1.

In 2001, the eight Derby starters not listed in Future Wager Round 1 would have been roughly 3-1. They closed in Round 1 at 3-1. No value.

In 2000, the nine Derby starters not listed in Future Wager Round 1 would have been roughly 4-1 lumped together, higher than their closing price in Round 1 - 7-2. No value.

In 1999, the 10 Derby starters not listed in Future Wager Round 1 would have been roughly 2-1 lumped together. They closed in Round 1 at 5-1. Yes, value.

This is what bettors should consider when they decide next February whether to wager or pass on the Round 1 field at 5-2. The question is not who will win. Rather, it is whether the Derby winner is among the 23 individual runners.

Now the popularity of future wagers has extended to the World Thoroughbred Championships. Future wagering on the Breeders' Cup Classic, Distaff, and Sprint will be held July 4-7, four months before the races. Based on the 18-year history of the Breeders' Cup, it should be fairly easy to compile a list of contenders for the three races. Once again, the question is: How likely is it that the winner will be included among the list of 23?

If the winner was likely to be included, it would make no sense wagering on the "all others" entry. Otherwise, a bet on "all others" may be the only intelligent wager to make, assuming reasonable odds.

For the first seven years of the Breeders' Cup, from 1984-90, only one winner (Very Subtle in the Sprint) was a relative unknown four months beforehand. Every other winner had a high-enough profile in summer to indicate likely inclusion on a list of 23 contenders for the Classic, Distaff, and Sprint

Like the Derby, however, the Breeders' Cup has changed. Nowadays, late bloomers regularly win the Classic, Distaff, and Sprint. Four of the last nine Classic winners (Arcangues, Concern, Alphabet Soup, and Tiznow in 2001) would not likely have been included on a list of 23 compiled in July.

Likewise, four of the last nine Distaff winners (Hollywood Wildcat, One Dreamer, Spain, and Unbridled Elaine) would not likely have been included on a list of 23 compiled in July.

The Sprint is even more chaotic. Six of the last 11 Sprint winners (Shiekh Albadou, Thirty Slews, Desert Stormer, Elmhurst, Reraise, and Squirtle Squirt) would not likely have been included on a list of 23 compiled in July.

The "all others" wager has won two of the last four Kentucky Derbies. An initial examination suggests bettors take a long look at No. 24 when Round 1 of the Breeders' Cup Future Wager opens two months from now.