07/01/2002 11:00PM

Handicapping Cup Futures

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NEW YORK - The inaugural Breeders' Cup Futures bet begins this holiday weekend, and it will be an adventure into thoroughly uncharted wagering territory. Such situations are treacherous and confusing but usually end up presenting an extraordinary opportunity of some sort.

Three win-betting pools - on the Classic, Distaff, and Sprint - start Thursday and close Sunday, and are open from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time all four days. This is the first of four Futures pools. On Aug. 9-Aug. 11, win bets will be taken on the three grass races, the Turf, Mile, and Filly and Mare Turf; on Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-Sept. 2, there will be a second pool on the same three dirt races for older horses being offered this weekend; finally, Sept. 20-Sept. 22, there will be Futures betting on the two juvenile races. In all pools, there will be 23 individual horses available for betting, along with a "none of the above" mutuel field.

If you look at this first pool as simple who-do-you-like betting, the drawbacks are obvious and numerous. With the Oct. 26 races nearly four months away, many who look like leading contenders today will be sidelined or retired by then - and you don't get a refund if your horse doesn't make it to the race. You could also get to the starting gate and still end up taking the worst of it pricewise if today's hot 6-1 favorite goes off form and is 15-1 on Breeders' Cup Day.

Those are all legitimate arguments for not jumping into the pool as a conventional picking-winners exercise, but there are some unique positive aspects to consider. With 24 betting interests, there are going to be some overlooked horses at gigantic prices. The novelty of the bet may also keep heavy hitters away, and the pools could end up being overpopulated with very casual holiday racegoers betting $20 on their favorite horse regardless of price.

Pool size will be an enormous factor. No one knows what to expect, but Breeders' Cup officials have said they would be pleased with a combined $150,000 on this weekend's propositions. If there's really only $50,000 in each pool, there could be some big swings if a few people take serious shots. A few deep-pocketed, arrogant Brits convinced that High Chapparal or Sakhee are pounds better than anything on our side of the pond could drive up the prices on everyone else.

In addition to hunting for overlays on individual horses you like at a price, there are three general ways to approach the bet that may be worthy of consideration:

Pounding a favorite

If you really believe that only injury or racing luck can keep, say, Street Cry from winning the Classic or Azeri from winning the Distaff, now may be the time to bet. While a price of between 5-1 and 8-1 may seem unappetizing amid so much uncertainty, it will look awfully fat if both win out their remaining races and are 6-5 on Breeders' Cup Day. It wouldn't have been so bad to lock in at 6-1 on Cigar in 1995 or Skip Away in 1997; they won their Classics at odds of 7-10 and 9-5.

If you love Street Cry and think he will romp in the Whitney Aug. 2, why wait for the next pool when his price would be lower after that victory? Locking in at a bigger price now also gives you the option of hedging on Breeders' Cup Day if, for example, only one other horse emerges that you think can beat him.

Make your own entry

Another opinion you might have is that there is a group of three or four horses in one of the races that is highly likely to produce the winner. You think they are true standouts in their division and that it's very unlikely someone of their quality will emerge from obscurity in the months ahead. While you would never bet four favorites to win in an eight-horse field, the prices may be high enough in a field of 24 to make your own parimutuel entry by betting them all.

Purely for argument's sake, let's say you believe that you haven't seen anything this year that makes you think last year's first three finishers in the Breeders' Cup Sprint aren't still by far the best sprinters in the world. You could bet Squirtle Squirt, Xtra Heat, and Caller One, and if they are all 11-1 you're getting 3-1 on the "entry." There may be similar ways to leverage opinions about a group of horses if you have a strong preference between, say, the 3-year-olds and the elders in either the Classic or Distaff divisions.

Bet the field

The "none of the above" option has proved a winner in many of the Kentucky Derby Futures bets, often going off as the favorite in the early-season pools. Handicappers must decide whether the Breeders' Cup races are inherently more or less likely than the Derby to be won by a horse toiling in relative obscurity 111 days before post time.

It would seem logical that the Cup races don't have as much potential for chaos. Three-year-olds in February and March are more volatile than older horses in the summer and fall. Looking at the lists of 23 for these first three pools, it seems like the winner is probably among the listed horses, but there have been exceptions in recent years. While Tiznow would have been among the select 23 last year, he would not have been two Julys ago. Unbridled Elaine probably would have been in last July's mutuel field for the Distaff.

Still, handicappers should probably demand a bigger mutuel field price in these pools than they do for the Derby. They almost certainly will get them: While the field price in early Derby Futures pools has frequently been 6-1 or less, Futures linemaker Mike Watchmaker has tabbed the fields at 12-1 in the Classic and 10-1 in the Distaff and Sprint. If you like some horses who aren't on the list, there's nothing wrong with taking a double-digit price on them all and getting every other late bloomer effectively thrown in for free by Breeders' Cup Day.

Brand-new bets almost always offer value until the public digests a few results and figures out the optimal way to play. There is some approach or opportunity with this pool that is going to look brilliant in retrospect come Oct. 26; the challenge is to identify it by Sunday.

Reprinted from DRF Simulcast Weekly