05/08/2003 11:00PM

The lesson of Funny Cide's Derby

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Part of the fun involved in handicapping the Kentucky Derby is that it is a shared experience for racing fans throughout the country. Some of us begin handicapping the race weeks or even months before the first Saturday in May, for the purpose of betting Kentucky Derby future wagers, or for the right to brag that we were the first in our group of friends to spot the winner. At the very least, most fans will discuss the Derby with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, and will put plenty of thought into forming an opinion during the week leading up to the race.

When you put that much time, effort, and consideration into the handicapping of a particular race, it is tempting to expect the outcome to teach you some Great Cosmic Handicapping Truth you can carry with you for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen. But I do believe there are valuable lessons illustrated by most runnings of the Derby - lessons that can serve as important reminders of handicapping principles most of us have already learned but that we occasionally overlook or underestimate.

The key is to try to extract a valuable broad insight while not being so finicky as to insist on the presence of numerous specific details that are unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Last year's lesson provided by War Emblem was not that you should insist on a barn switch to one of the best trainers in the game, and 20-1 odds, and a huge Beyer Speed Figure, and an uncontested lead before betting on a horse with early speed. The next time that particular combination of circumstances occurs again, I hope my great, great-grandchildren are clever enough to win a bundle on the race. Until then, it is much more useful to recall the more general lesson from War Emblem's upset win: Any contender who might possibly be the lone speed at attractive odds on a track that isn't biased against his running style is usually a good bet.

In the 2001 Derby, Monarchos had already proven his talent with an impressive 4 1/2-length win in the Florida Derby. But a second-place finish behind Congaree as the 9-10 favorite in the Wood caused most bettors to abandon him, and he was sent off as the sixth betting choice in the Derby at 10-1. The lesson that year was that it is a good idea to forgive a subpar performance last time out in an otherwise consistent runner if his odds are generous.

And what should we learn from Funny Cide's upset triumph this year? I believe the lesson is to remember not to overestimate the importance of a narrow margin of defeat. Clearly, the half-length difference between Empire Maker and Funny Cide in the Wood was not significant enough to justify the gap between a $7 win payoff on Empire Maker and the $27.60 offered on Funny Cide.

Although it is a much more subtle example, that point was already made for those who were paying attention to the five-furlong Grade 3 Aegon Turf Sprint at Churchill on Oaks Day. Fiscally Speaking had finished sixth last time, but was only 1 1/4 lengths behind No Jacket Required in a blanket finish in the Grade 3 Shakertown, a 5 1/2-furlong turf stakes at Keeneland. No Jacket Required was 10-1 in the Aegon; Testify, who had finished a neck behind him, was 6-1. And Abderian, who was a head behind Testify in third, was 4-1. I'm not suggesting that Fiscally Speaking deserved to be anyone's top selection in the Aegon, but the 1 1/4 lengths he lost by at the same class level last time did not justify the difference between his 47-1 odds and the much lower prices on the contenders who had edged him at Keeneland. Sometimes it pays to go to your fourth, fifth, or even sixth selection to find the betting value in a race. Those who gave Fiscally Speaking the benefit of the doubt were rewarded with a $96.80 win payoff.