01/21/2004 1:00AM

I get knocked down - but get up again

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BOSTON - You could call it a bounce trap. But it's really just one subset of a familiar and much larger group: the always treacherous "must-bet-against" favorite. If you can beat a heavily bet favorite, the value will certainly be there. But value without a clear positive opinion - that's where the treacherous part comes in.

In the second race at Santa Anita on Jan. 16 you had just such a tantalizing situation: the 4-5 favorite, On the Q Tea, looked vulnerable to a big bounce. You had to bet against her. Thus began a string of races in which I was faced with decisions of whether or not to beat the potential bounce.

Race 2: On the Q Tea earned her overbet status when she lost by a nose in her previous start. But she hadn't run for two months before that draining effort; she had chased and dueled on the lead the entire trip; and her 72 Beyer was close to her lifetime best. This unusually strenuous performance could well deplete her energies, setting her up for a possible bounce in her next start. In addition, I had a few interesting ideas in the third race and a very solid favorite in the fourth. So this set up the ideal circumstances for a pick three play. Just toss out On the Q Tea, and use the four other possible winners, including two first-time starters. The remaining two horses looked totally impossible. If you could beat this favorite, you would have a running start at a lucrative pick three.

Of course, as you might have noticed, the totally impossible does occasionally jump up and beat you, ignoring all the on-paper form that cries out, "No shot." And so it happened in this race. On the Q Tea did indeed run up the track, but a filly named Corenn (at 65-1 in a seven-horse field) closed from last place and blew away all the best-laid pick three plans. There's nothing worse than having the right opinion about a vulnerable favorite, and losing anyway. And not just losing, but losing a serious sum in the first leg of a multi-race play. A depressingly rotten start to the day.

Still, for those who could call up reserve reservoirs of both heart and cash, the pick three rolled on.

Race 3: In terms of the Beyer Speed Figures, this race boiled down to three contenders who could run in the mid- to upper-70's. The favorite, Anza, had solid recent Beyers of 76-78-71. But she had the outside post in this one-mile race. Still, she had to be used. George's Stick had a potential cycling pattern: a 79 back on Nov. 27, followed by a bounce down to 67, and an improved 71 in her most recent start. The fact that her 79 had been earned in a one-turn sprint reduced her appeal a bit, but she had to be part of the mix. The most interesting possibility was Two Thirty Seven. She also had a cycling pattern, but with a major difference. Back on Oct. 17 she had won a mile race with a figure of 73, equaling her lifetime best. Then she fell back to a 54, improved to a 61, but failed to improve again in her most recent try. But that most recent race was a one-turn sprint. If that was just an excusable interruption in her cycle, then she might be able to return to something in the range of that earlier 73 at today's distance. At odds of 9-1, you certainly had to put her on the ticket with the other two contenders.

The favorite, Anza, finished third at 7-5. George's Stick failed to cycle as expected, finishing nowhere. But Two Thirty Seven won at a $20 mutuel.

Race 4: I'm Awesome Again looked like a very strong single, although at an unappetizing 4-5. With a huge 88 Beyer back on Oct. 17, he clearly had the ability to crush this field. And his recent figures of 52 and 59 showed some improvement again in a positive direction. He had been dueling for the lead with much faster horses, and today he had the benefit of the rail and race-controlling, front-running speed. His most recent Beyer of 59 - earned under difficult circumstances - was actually co-top figure in the field, and, with the slight drop in class, he could clearly improve on that number.

I'm Awesome Again proved anything but awesome. He struggled, but he finally squeezed out a half-length victory.

Race 5: The final leg of the pick three, and a wide-open event. There were five serious contenders who could produce Beyer figures in the mid-70's range. I decided to leave out a seemingly obvious sixth contender, Fortune Catcher, since he had peaked in his most recent race, dueling the entire way, losing by a neck, and earning back-to-back lifetime-best Beyers. He could easily bounce, and even off his best figure he was marginal. And I included Tunder Ponche, who had not run since July 31, but had earned a 67 in that race. If fit and ready, the now more mature 3-year-old Tunder Ponche could improve substantially on that 67. And he was trained by Mike Mitchell, who always bears watching in Southern California.

Tunder Ponche won at 7-2. The $2 pick three, my 3 x 1 x 5 ticket, paid $334.40. All in all, it's a valuable lesson. After punishment must come perseverance and a proper use of the Beyers. If you can get back up after being flattened by the totally impossible, and you can quickly redeploy your mental and financial resources, it shouldn't turn out too badly in the end.