05/15/2002 11:00PM

Here's the way to play Pimlico's pick fours

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Last May the pick four opened to rave reviews at Belmont Park, frequently producing payoffs that far exceeded win-parlay value. And like last year, Pimlico is offering two pick fours on Friday and two more on Saturday, which have guaranteed minimum pools and a bettor-friendly 14 percent take-out.

Pimlico's Friday card last year was pretty chalky, you may recall. The first pick-four sequence consisted of winners at 4-5, 2-1, 2-1, and 6-5, and paid $201.80. The day's second pick four was even chalkier, after winners at 6-5, 8-5, 1-5 and 6-5 produced a miserly $80.40 return.

This leads to the following advice: Don't look to play a pick four with nothing but logical contenders. A 3x3x3x3 ticket using obvious horses in each leg gives you 81 combinations, but it gives you very little chance at a meaningful score and leaves you vulnerable to the kind of marginal contenders that so often win at least one of the races. A two-single 1x1x9x9 ticket yields the same 81 combinations and costs the same, but by taking a stand in two legs, it gives you two chances to catch one of those "outside-the-box" winners that turbo-boost the payoffs. Instead of having just 12 horses total, the same dollar investment gives you 20 runners. Bite the bullet and take a stand.

There were considerably more fireworks on Pimlico's 2001 Preakness program. The first pick four consisted of three winners at 7-2 and one 10-1 shot. The pick four payoff of $3,828 was nearly twice a four-horse win parlay of $2,140.

The all-stakes pick four that concluded with Point Given in the Preakness also offered tremendous value, and in this instance even for small tickets that used logical contenders. Perfect Cat ($4.80), Hap ($7.20), Disco Rico ($8.40), and Point Given ($6.60) combined for a $518.20 pick four that was more than twice the $239.50 win parlay.

This is being written 48 hours before Saturday's card, so to map out meticulously crafted tickets so far in advance of scratches and race-day track conditions isn't realistic. Instead, what follows is a simple overview of Saturday's early pick four consisting of races 4-7, and the late pick four on races 9-12, with whatever insights, if any, are at my disposal.

Final word of advice: Pay attention during the early part of the day to how the track is playing. Pimlico featured a strong, gold rail on Apr. 20, and the cards of May 9 and 10 were exceptionally speed-favoring as well. On Preakness Day 2001, however, outside moves from off the pace were quite potent.

EARLY PICK 4 ($200,000 minimum pool):

4th race - This optional claimer consists of a dozen Maryland-based horses and one Scott Lake-trained colt from Philadelphia Park. The big field is best handicapped by those with knowledge of locals. My plan is to spread like crazy.

5th race - The Woodlawn, an ungraded grass route for 3-year-olds. The horses I'm familiar with are Political Attack and Regal Sanction, who figure to vie for favoritism with Team Lukas's February Storm. No strong opinion.

6th race - The 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton on dirt for 3-year-olds. The likeliest scenario has game Withers runner-up Shah Jehan breaking to the lead from a cozy inside post under Jerry Bailey. This $4.4-million colt, who raced in Europe as a juvenile, is coming off his two best U.S. races and looks like a potential single.

7th race - The 1 1/16-mile on turf Gallorette for older fillies. The pace should be hotly contested among Winter Leaf, Presumed Innocent, and Walts Wharf, which paves the way for a stretch showdown between the Bill Mott-trained Watch and the Christophe Clement-trained Siringas. Give the edge to Watch, a Grade 3 winner, over Siringas, who removes blinkers after blowing a clear lead in a third-level allowance.

LATE PICK 4 ($500,000 minimum pool):

9th race - Seven of the ten 3-year-olds in the six-furlong Hirsch Jacobs have Beyered 90 at least once, and one of the colts who hasn't is a Ben Perkins-trained homebred who has won three starts in a row. I may opt to cover the lot of them, unless a strong inside bias is detected, in which case City Sharpster, a contender to begin with, becomes all the more intriguing as a potentially square-priced single. He received an exceptional pace figure at Aqueduct on Mar. 22, and after dropping back in midstretch, he altered course to the outside and re-rallied to win. With blinkers added in the Bay Shore, his pace figure was equally strong, despite bobbling at the break and being caught widest in a four-way pace duel.

10th race - The Grade 2 Dixie on turf boils down to Sumitas, Strut the Stage, Del Mar Show, and Dr. Kashnikow, who becomes more formidable the firmer the turf gets.

11th race - Tenpins (113) and Tactical Side (109) come off lifetime top Beyers that are hard to trust in the 1 1/8-mile Schaefer Handicap, and no New York regular has ever trusted Ground Storm as far as they could throw him, even though his last five figures read: 105-107-105-107-106. Another with big figs, the local horse First Amendment, is drawn on the extreme outside. My single will be the 4-year-old Bowman's Band, who has had six weeks off since the Oaklawn Handicap, in which he slightly surpassed his top figure as a 3-year-old.

12th race - War Emblem looked like the reincarnation of Seattle Slew winning the Kentucky Derby. Will he stand up to pace pressure? I'm betting he will, but not as a 3-1 single in the pick four. My final-leg bullets will also include Proud Citizen, Equality, Medaglia d'Oro, and Harlan's Holiday.

And if it should come up City Sharpster-Sumitas-Bowman's Band-Equality, you can reach me in Maui.