Updated on 09/17/2011 11:02AM

Graveyard of longshots


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Man o' War and Secretariat head everyone's list of all-time great Thoroughbreds, yet they bit the dust at the fabled Spa, so there really must be something to this "Graveyard of Favorites" thing, right?

While the term "upset" originated at the intersection of Union and Nelson Avenues in the aftermath of the 1919 Sanford, bettors who consistently eschew the post-time choice in the new millennium are asking for trouble, and lots of it. That is especially true when it comes to Saratoga stakes races, where hard-to-figure winners have been few and far between.

This is not to suggest that favorites in stakes always win here. But if last summer's results serve as a more recent and more predictive indication than the shocking exploits of Upset and Onion - and they do - favorites are alive and well, and they more than hold their own. Moreover, handicappers had better have darn good reasons to reach beyond the first three betting choices in any stakes.

The 35 stakes at Saratoga's

2002 meet were unerringly formful, producing a median $2 win mutuel of just $8.40. Only two winners went off at more than 9-1 - Quest Star ($25) in the Hall of Fame for 3-year-olds on the grass, and Textbook Method ($28.40) in an off-the-turf renewal of the Yaddo for New York-bred fillies.

All told, favorites won at a 40 percent clip (14-35), and their success rate doubled to 80 percent (8-10) when they were held at odds-on. What's more, when the favorite went down in flames it was usually at the hands of another well-regarded contender: Second choices won 31.4 percent of the time (11-35), a success rate that is close to the universal average for favorites; third choices won 20 percent (7-35).

Weekend warriors who are picnicking in the backyard with the wife and kids, or betting from home while surrounded by the usual distractions, often have a limited amount of time to do their handicapping. Considering that all but three stakes here last summer went to one of the top three choices (it was 34 out of 35 if you include the fourth choice), they might spend that precious time most efficiently by focusing solely on the three or four likeliest-looking runners, and leaving pie-in-the-sky picks to their parimutuel competition.

Whether handicapping stakes or lesser-class races at the Spa, it pays to respect the top-shelf trainers when they are saddling the favorite, but be aware that most of them are just as vulnerable as Joe Blow when someone else is sending out the chalk.

Defending champ Todd Pletcher, for example, has won at 45.6 percent with favorites at the past two Saratoga meets, but with non-favorites his win rate dropped to 9.4 percent (11-116).

By the way, the first two stakes at this meet were won by Pletcher-trained favorites.

Other notable examples from Saratoga 2002:

- Bobby Frankel: 55 percent (6-11) with favorites vs. 14 percent (3-21) with non-favorites.

- Richard Dutrow Jr.: 40 percent (4-10) with favorites vs. 6 percent

(2-36) with non-favorites.

- D. Wayne Lukas: 44 percent

(4-9) with favorites vs. 4 percent

(2-47) with non-favorites.

Use those chalks - and score

Thanks to multi-race exotics, having a healthy respect for favorites in likely spots doesn't necessarily mean you have to forgo the chance for a big score.

The key is to avoid wise-guying yourself into using back-ups along with legitimate favorites. The idea is to stand alone with them, and really spread out in the two or three wide-open races that are usually found somewhere in the sequence - the kind that frequently blow up typical pick four tickets that go 2x2x2x3. For the same $24, you're much likelier to catch a worthwhile payoff by taking a stand and going 1x1x4x6, and catching that marginal contender that was chopped off most small tickets.

One of the more illustrative pick four sequences from Saratoga 2002 occurred on Aug. 11, when three highly competitive grass races surrounded a six-horse renewal of the A.G. Vanderbilt Handicap.

Anyone could see that eventual Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Orientate towered over the Vanderbilt field, and that was reflected by his 2-5 odds. Not much chance for a big score there.

But what if you also had a positive opinion about the Todd Pletcher-trained Balto Star, the lukewarm

7-2 favorite in a classified allowance that was the second leg of the sequence, whose only previous win on turf had come at Saratoga the previous year?

A pick-four play could easily be fashioned by linking Balto Star with lead-pipe cinch Orientate and including anything with a pulse in the other two legs.

To make a long story short, singling 2-5 and 7-2 shots and going all-all required an outlay of $90, and caught a $3,978 pick four that paid nearly twice the parlay after Play It Out ($36.20) and Gayle's Glory ($15.80) won photo finishes in the spread legs.

That's not a bad day's pay for singling a 2-5 shot in a six-horse stakes, because those can't-miss favorites practically always get the money here.