12/19/2003 12:00AM

Hopping off the Bejarano bandwagon

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When he is competing against the likes of Pat Day, Robby Albarado, Cornelio Velasquez, and other top jockeys, Rafael Bejarano is a longshot player's best friend. Give him a horse at double-digit odds who has any kind of chance, and Bejarano is a serious threat to score the upset.

But what happens when Bejarano becomes the big fish in a smaller pond and gets his choice of mounts? Anyone who is following the current Turfway Park meet knows what the answer has been. Through Dec. 18, Bejarano has won 40 races from 115 mounts, a 34-percent success rate. He has won more than three times as many races as Rodney Prescott, who is second in the standings with 12 victories. Unfortunately, Bejarano's mounts at long odds have been few and far between. The average payoff on Bejarano's winners is only $5.80, just a shade less than 2-1.

What should bettors do? Should they simply go with the flow and stay on board for as long as Bejarano remains hot? Or would it be smarter to play against his mounts and assume they will soon become underlays as Bejarano's bandwagon becomes even more crowded than it already is?

So far, Bejarano fans are just about breaking even and collecting slightly less than a 1-percent profit on his 34-percent winners. The upside to betting on his horses is low, limited primarily by his win percentage. How much can he raise a number that is already sky-high? He would have to win 38 percent of his races to show a 10-percent profit at $5.80 per winner. But if Bejarano continues to dominate his opponents at Turfway, his average win payoff figures to become even smaller. If that happens, 39- to 40-percent wins might soon be required to net a 10-percent gain. Does anyone really expect him to win that often on a regular basis?

The downside to betting on Bejarano is larger than the upside, because he isn't likely to increase his win percentage. If he wins at "only" a 30-percent rate and manages to maintain a $5.80 payoff, bettors will lose 13 percent of their money. At a 25-percent win rate, which would normally be considered a strong number for any rider, Bejarano supporters would take a beating, losing more than 27 percent of their investment.

It is a tribute to Bejarano's riding ability that he has become so popular at Turfway and the expectations of his supporters have become unrealistically high. But since that now appears to be the case, I am issuing the handicapping equivalent of a stock market "sell signal." I will be looking to bet against horses ridden by Bejarano whenever they do not stand out in a race. The weaker his horse appears to be, the more exotic the betting slots from which I will exclude him. Depending on the circumstances of the race in question, there will be money to be made by leaving him out of exactas, trifectas, and superfectas.

I'll track the return on investing on win bets on all of Bejarano's mounts from this point on in future columns, starting with the Dec. 19 card, to see if he begins to produce the flat-bet losses that I suspect are just around the corner.

Recent trends favor fast starters

During the early part of this Turfway meet, the racing surface, which was changed over the summer, favored mid-pack runners and closers. Most handicappers have adjusted to that trend and are now emphasizing those running styles when the make their selections.

But track bias trends can change. It is a mistake to watch the first few days of any meet and assume that is the way the track is destined to play for months to come without updating your observations. A check of the last seven race cards through Dec. 18 shows that horses who led at the first call won at an impressive 36-percent rate in that span, going 25 of 68. Handicappers would be wise to keep an eye on this trend to see how long it lasts and how it correlates with the weather conditions as they unfold during the coming months at Turfway.