04/17/2002 11:00PM

How do you make money in a chalkfest?


JAMAICA, N.Y. - "No doubt about Northeast Winds," said track announcer Tom Durkin during Thursday's fourth race at Aqueduct. "She strolls under the wire to win by better than eight!"

And with that, another 3-5 shot had romped by a pole.

The mind-numbing parade of oh-so-logical winners marches on, and it continues to gather momentum through what might be described by value players as the "dog days" of spring in New York. When Northeast Wind's $3.70 payoff was posted official it meant the post-time choice had won 92 of the first 213 races at meet, for a 43 percent strike rate that is roughly 10 percentage points above and beyond the universal average.

Great for a public handicapper's stats. Not so great for the pocketbook.

A race later, the top three betting choices finished in order, led by $3.40 winner Mister Bravo, producing an anemic $12.40 trifecta payoff.

Experienced observers of the circuit might have seen this chalkfest coming, because it has become an annual rite of spring. To recall, favorites won 41 percent of the races at the corresponding meet last year.

Aqueduct in the spring is fertile ground for form, and not because the grass on the turf course has started to grow. Field sizes are relatively small, and they figure to remain that way until closing day (May 5), with many outfits gearing up for Belmont Park.

The typical small field contains several easy throw-outs, and several times a day handicappers can expect to see a fresh-and-fit Florida shipper take on a handful of battle-worn locals who spent the winter knocking heads. Later on Thursday's card, for example, the John Kimmel-trained, graded stakes-placed Indy Glory, her last four Beyer Speed Figures 86-92-87-93, made her second start of the season in a second-level allowance against four rivals whose last four figs were: 72-78-74-72; 54-70-70-74; 72-71-63-58; and 78-68-83-74.

She was 1-5. Guess who won?

A tougher question is, what is a horseplayer to do during stretches like this? Most wise guys consider it heresy to have anything to do with favorites except as a singleton in a pick four or a pick six. When "3-5" is the first flash they automatically begin the process of staking out a contrarian position.

That kind of against-the-grain mindset is all well and good when dealing with full fields and vulnerable favorites. But when the chalk is legit, looking for loopholes just to alleviate boredom is a sure-fire way to rationalize yourself right into a losing streak.

Once the discipline has been mustered to resist futile swings, a player might come to appreciate two alternative methods until the run of mortal cinches has subsided.

The first is to hammer a few combinations in multi-race exotics. While the wise guys are going 2x3x3 in an effort to bet around the favorites in a pick three, and laying out $36 to catch one winning payoff, you go 1x2x2 and catch the same payoff nine times. In Wednesday's pick three on races 2-3-4, just 20 horses made up the entire sequence. The winners were Burst of Dawn, who at $2.60 had to fall down to lose; second choice Badger Gold ($8.90); and second choice Groovy Pad ($8.40). It's not a life-changing score, and your buddies might snicker, but what's wrong with a $45.40 payoff on what was essentially a pair of 3-1 shots?

The second approach is to concede the race to the favorite, and key it on top in exactas, trifectas, and superfectas whenever the second choice looks beatable.

Last Friday, another Kimmel-trained filly named Quiet Lake shipped up from Gulfstream to win a third-level allowance by nine lengths, and paid $2.90 in a five-horse field. It didn't take a genius to see that she had to fall down to lose. But when 7-1 third choice Lady Katie, who was 2 for 3 lifetime on Aqueduct's main track, beat out 3-1 second choice Authentic Caller for the runner-up spot, the exacta came back $13. That was the equivalent of getting 5.50-1 odds to place on Lady Katie.

Another word of advice, though: Just because you think a horse is a cinch, don't do something reckless like overbetting your percentage of bankroll. After all, Yankee Gentleman was 20 cents on the dollar in last Saturday's fourth race and looked for all the world like he had to fall down to lose.

And that is exactly what he did.