05/27/2003 11:00PM

How big-day performers do next out

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LOUISVILLE - For the past few years, I have upgraded the performances of horses that compete on Oaks and Derby Day at Churchill Downs. The rationale is simple. These races, even maiden and allowance contests, are stronger than normal because they are a part of these big days.

Horsemen with quality runners are eager to be a part of the cards, knowing that there is no greater rush than winning a race in front of 100,000 people.

A race like the Humana Distaff on Derby Day is a prime example. A seven-furlong contest for fillies and mares, the Humana Distaff, now a Grade 1 race, routinely draws some of the best female sprinters in training - a stark contrast to how it would shape up if it were run at Churchill Downs on any given Saturday in June, as opposed to Derby Day. This is true of the other races on Oaks and Derby cards as well.

The question is, can we capitalize by knowing these races are so good? On the surface, it would appear so.

Aldebaran, winner of the Churchill Downs Handicap on the Derby undercard, came back to win the Grade 1 Met Mile at Belmont Park. Cuvee, an easy maiden winner on Oaks Day, just won the Kentucky Breeders' Cup for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

They weren't the only ones. On Tuesday, I checked the past performances of the top four finishers from every race on Oaks and Derby Day, and tracked how they did in their next races.

The results were impressive. Of the 41 horses that had already run back, 10 had won. Another nine had run second, and another seven had run third. Viewing those numbers as percentages, that translates to better than 24 percent winners and better than 63 percent finishing in the money.

That is a tremendous success rate - not far off the standard of favorites, who typically win a third of the time and hit the board two thirds of the time.

But the news wasn't all rosy from a wagering perspective. Despite their success, these horses weren't profitable investments. The average odds on the 10 winners were 2.27-1, generating a $2 return on investment of $1.60. Four of the winners went off at even money or less.

Although I wasn't shocked by how well these horses ran in their subsequent races, the short prices were surprising. I have a few theories as to why they were supported so heavily at the windows.

For starters, many of these horses came into their Oaks and Derby Day races with good form. By running in the top four, they also left with attractive form.

Additionally, many earned high Beyer Speed Figures, numbers that dwarfed those of some of their competitors in their subsequent races.

But more than anything, I believe these horses got pounded for predominantly one reason - the races were fresh in the minds of the wagering public.

Over 100,000 people watched the Oaks races on track, and many more viewed them on simulcast or on television. Nearly 150,000 viewed the Derby races on track, and even more watched the races on television or at tracks or OTBs across the country.

If you saw an impressive winner, so did the next guy. And because the Oaks and Derby experience is so memorable, these races remain fresh in the minds of bettors.

Even before doing this analysis, if someone had asked me to name at least four winners from the Derby card, I could have done it in a snap.

But ask me now to name four winners from the Thursday preceding the Derby and all I can remember is Final Round, winner of the La Troienne. I'd bet other handicappers would similarly struggle.

So how should these Oaks and Derby Day runners be treated when they return? Always with respect, but if you're looking for value, more often than not you will have to look elsewhere. Unless they return in a similarly tough race, such as Aldebaran ($10.80) did in the Met Mile, they are likely to be underlays.