03/02/2006 12:00AM

Lock in Derby odds this weekend

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The Kentucky Derby Future Wager, the pari-mutuel offering run this Thursday through Sunday by Churchill Downs, couldn't come at a better time.

Saturday features two of the top early Derby preps - Santa Anita's Grade 2 Santa Catalina at 1 1/16 miles and Gulfstream's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at 1 1/8 miles - with Gulfstream's Grade 2 Swale at seven furlongs thrown in for good measure. And for handicappers who like to mix their sports with racing, it's right before March Madness takes away most of our attention. The third and final KDFW will be held April 6-9, the week after the Final Four and after the baseball season is under way.

For those unfamiliar with the KDFW, a committee consisting of Churchill spokesman John Asher and Daily Racing Form handicappers Mike Watchmaker and Brad Free pick 23 individual betting interests. All other 3-year-olds comprise the 24th betting interest, the field. Churchill linemaker Mike Battaglia sets the opening odds (which are in the column next to the horses' names in the chart to the right). Since it is parimutuel, the odds change during the wagering, so the vast majority of action comes in on Sunday afternoon. The pool closes at 6 p.m. Eastern, 3 p.m. here in Vegas.

That's more than 24 hours after the aforementioned races will be run, so you can bet your bottom dollar that the horses that fare well in the Santa Catalina, Fountain of Youth, and Swale will be heavily backed while those that run badly will be shunned.

The chart can be used in a couple of ways. If you're in Vegas or have access to another future book before the running of Saturday's races, you can lock in a horse's odds if you feel the price will plummet after a strong performance. If you think a horse's odds are too low now, and that the horse will not perform well this weekend but might come into form on the first Saturday in May, you can decide to wait for a better price. Or you can just use the odds to gauge the KDFW's value on a given horse, especially one that isn't running this weekend.

First Samurai is a good case study of the first two scenarios. He was available at 10-1 earlier this week at both Wynn Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Hilton (Note: as with all future wagers, odds are subject to change and could be different by the time this is read in print or online. "Fixed odds," in the case of Vegas future odds, means that you keep the odds at the time of your bet - not that they're fixed in perpetuity). If you feel First Samurai will pass his first two-turn test in the Fountain of Youth, it would probably be best to lock in your price before everyone jumps on the bandwagon. However, if you feel he'll need a race around two turns but will eventually round into form and live up to his potential, then the plan would be to wait.

Brother Derek, the top West Coast 3-year-old, was also available at double digits earlier in the week, and it's likely that won't last through the weekend if he continues to move forward in the Santa Catalina.

Other KDFW-listed horses running this weekend include Great Point, Flashy Bull, Corinthian, and My Golden Song in the Fountain of Youth; Latent Heat in the Santa Catalina; and Noonmark in the Swale. Those are all at least 20-1 in the KDFW morning line, with three of them (Flashy Bull, My Golden Song, and Noonmark) available at 75-1 at various race books around Las Vegas, though the odds will drop with strong performances.

In surveying the future books around town, Wynn and the Hilton generally had the better odds on the top contenders while the Palms and Imperial Palace (not listed) had slightly better odds on some of the longshots.

At this time of year, everyone seems to wonder if a filly can compete with the boys. It's generally not a good bet to find that one special filly at 100-1 or thereabouts and then sweat out whether she'll make it to the starting gate. The Palms has an interesting prop in which you can take "any filly" at 30-1.

However, that kind of creative bookmaking on horse racing is in short supply these days. In fact, this should serve as a warning that Vegas visitors shouldn't expect to just walk into any race book and be able to make a future bet on the Derby. Not as many race books are offering fixed-odds futures as have in the past.

The locals-oriented properties at Coast Casinos and Station Casinos do not have Derby future books, but even the offerings on the Strip are a shadow of what they were in the not-so-distant past.

The Excalibur used to have one of the most extensive lists and its odds would also be available at its sister properties of Circus Circus and the Luxor. But since last year when the Mandalay Bay Resort Group merged with the MGM Mirage resorts (which in addition to the MGM Grand and The Mirage includes Bellagio, Treasure Island, Monte Carlo, and New York-New York), all of those books are without futures, and that's a big portion of the Strip.

The Caesars Entertainment group, which was bought out by Harrah's last year, has also undergone a change. John Avello had been at Bally's for 15 years and ran the most comprehensive Derby future book, which also was offered at the other Caesars properties, but he moved to the Wynn last July. This year, the Caesars group has 249 horses listed, plus a "field" bet of all other 3-year-olds. Instead of adding horses at juicy odds, late bloomers are just part of the field, which opened at 8-1 but is now down to 9-5. A main reason for that can be seen in the fact that of the 23 individual betting interests in this weekend's KDFW, 13 are not on the list and thus part of the field.

Here's hoping that by this time next year, books that have cut their Derby futures offerings will step back up to the plate.

Shopping the Derby Futures

Kentucky Derby Future Wager- Vegas Future Book

No.HorseMorning LineWynnHiltonPalms
1Achilles of Troy20201822
2Barbaro810105
3Barbican20224030
4Bluegrass Cat10151512
5Bob and John1020185
6Brother Derek610129
7Cause to Believe30252515
8Corinthian50402520
9First Samurai1010105
10Flashy Bull50757540
11Great Point20203028
12Itsallboutthechase50757580
13Keyed Entry15252530
14Latent Heat30353028
15Lawyer Ron15251814
16My Golden Song30607540
17Noonmark50756060
18Point Determined20251525
19Private Vow15181516
20Really Indian50757580
21Steppenwolfer50255080
22Strong Contender20302030
23Sweetnorthernsaint30605025
24All other 3-year-olds5------