05/29/2008 11:00PM

History says Big Brown a bad bet

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NEW YORK - What are Big Brown's chances of winning the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown? To bet him at likely odds of 2-5, you have to believe he is 70 percent or higher to win the race, and it's pretty hard to make a case that he's that probable a winner. In fact, the historical record suggests the number is so much lower that you're practically obliged to bet against him - even if you really like him.

Favorites win roughly a third of all horse races, and the overall record of Derby-Preakness winners in the Belmont isn't far off - at 11 for 29, Triple Crown bids have been successful 37.9 percent of the time. At that rate, however, you have to be getting 2-1, not 2-5, to be getting the best of it or to show a profit over the long haul.

There's a case to be made, however, that the current effective number is even lower than 38 percent. From 1900 to 1950, Derby-Preakness winners were an almost automatic 8 for 9 in the Belmont. Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, and Citation all came through, and only Pensive in 1944 came up short.

Since then, however, winners of the first two legs are only 3 for 21 in the Belmont. Eight in a row lost after Citation; then Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed ran off three in a row; and since 1978, 10 in a row have lost.

The difference between an 89 percent strike rate before 1950 and only 14 percent since could be a matter of random streakiness, but it's so sharp a change that other forces may be at work. Several of the early Triple Crown winners faced small and overmatched fields drawn from a much smaller pool of horses than points for these races today. During that time, Californians rarely contested the Belmont, much less a third-time starter from Japan such as Casino Drive.

So what's the right number - the 11 for 29 (39 percent) since 1900, or the 3 for 21 (14 percent) since 1950? Whichever one is closer is still a lot, lot less than 70 percent.

If it seems counterintuitive to regard a dominating, talented horse who will be heavily favored as no better than a coin flip to win, just remember all the good ones who have tried and failed to accomplish this daunting task. The 10 straight losers in this spot include four Hall of Famers - Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and Silver Charm - and the pretty nice sextet of Pleasant Colony, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones.

I know, I know, Big Brown looks much the best on paper, wins his races in special fashion, and at times has had an almost mystical aura of invincibility about him. That still doesn't make him a good bet at 2-5. Yet every time we have one of these situations, the public badly overbets the Triple Crown aspirant. It's reminiscent of "Peanuts": Every time Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown, he believes it anew, and every time she pulls it away just as he's going to kick it, and he ends up flat on his back.

The nice thing about the parimutuel system is that if one horse is massively overbet, that means that others are underbet. You could bet on the rest of the field in varying amounts and nearly triple your money if Big Brown loses. Most bettors get a little greedier than that, and either hone in on some preferred individuals or get involved with exotic bets in the hopes of an even higher return.

Even if you decide to bet against the favorite, there are plenty of other decisions to be made, and they're not easy. Is Casino Drive really the right alternative, or is taking 7-2 on any horse to win the Belmont in his third career start as much of an underlay as Big Brown at 2-5? Is Denis of Cork a bargain at 8-1? How about 10-1? Or should you focus on the longshots, recalling pricey winners such as Sarava and Birdstone?

We've got almost a week to figure all that out. In the meantime, it's worth remembering that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that standard, no matter how much you like this horse, and I like him a lot, taking 2-5 on him to win the Triple Crown is simply nuts.