10/25/2001 11:00PM

Kentucky Derby futures bettors give an early salute to Officer

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They started filing in as early as Wednesday to play the Pick the Ponies horse race handicapping tournament at the Las Vegas Hilton as a warm up. But make no mistake about it: America's horse players were here to bet and celebrate the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.

But they also were looking to the future and next year's Kentucky Derby. No doubt there will be a rush to the windows immediately after the eighth race on Belmont's Championships Day card - the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - when the future-book favorite for the Derby is established.

Betting the winner of the Juvenile to win the Kentucky Derby has become an annual ritual here. And before this year, it didn't even matter who won the race. The Juvenile winner became the undisputed Derby future-book favorite by the time they ran the Classic.

This year, however, the future-book favorite has been established, and that is unlikely to change regardless of the result of the Juvenile. Bettors have been wagering on a freakishly fast California-bred son of Bertrando named Officer.

Never mind that he hadn't won the Juvenile yet. Never mind that many racing aficionados are skeptical of a Bertrando getting the Derby distance. Never mind his Dosage index of 5.00 says that he is unlikely to be at his best going 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May.

This rush to bet him started as soon as Las Vegas race books hung the numbers. Why wait until the formality of a Juvenile coronation? Who needs a Juvenile validation? Obviously not the players who have pounded Officer into the Derby favorite before the roses even bloom.

Of three Las Vegas race books which opened a Kentucky Derby future book before the Breeders' Cup, each has seen nothing but Officer money. Plenty of Officer money. Given his 5-for-5 record leading up to the Cup, and the scary way he has disposed of the competition, Officer has transcended the Juvenile.

At least in Las Vegas's future books.

Coast Resorts' four properties have had the 2002 Kentucky Derby future book opened since Aug. 3. Coast race-book oddsmaker Frank Minervini started Officer at 50-1. That lasted about as long as it took Officer to run a quarter-mile. As of Thursday, Officer was 6-1 for Derby glory at the Coast properties, and race-book personnel there report heavy action at that number. Coast race-book director Robert Gregorka admits that the low odds are somewhat embarrassing, but says the money keeps on coming. The biggest bets have been in the $1,000 range, and Gregorka says his properties are exposed - that is, they would lose money on the future book should Officer win. He plans to raise prices on others in the future book, which gives him an opportunity to balance the action.

"The high action and low odds on Officer at this early stage gives us, and more importantly the players, a chance to find overlay values on other bona fide Derby contenders," he said.

John Avello, who sets the future book numbers for the Park Place Entertainment properties, says he has had lots of action on Officer. Avello, who works from Bally's Las Vegas, opened his Kentucky Derby future book in mid-September. Avello started Officer at 12-1 and had him at 6-1 on Thursday. He reports the biggest bets placed on Officer at Park Place's eight properties were $2,000, and that he continues to get plenty of action on Officer.

Avello is ready for the ritual.

"Right after the Juvenile, they'll be lined up to bet the winner for the Derby," he said. "And Officer, whether he wins or not."

At the Imperial Palace, race and sports book director Jay Kornegay opened his 2002 Derby futures early this month, and has already dropped Officer from the opening line of 15-1 to 6-1. There has been plenty of Officer activity at that level.

With all this futures betting on Officer, it should be noted that no winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile has ever won the Derby. But this year bettors haven't even bothered to wait for the result of the Juvenile

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.