04/20/2006 11:00PM

At long odds, 'maybe' is good enough

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Sinister Minister (above) will be nowhere near Bellamy Road's 5-2 Derby odds.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - There is nothing I enjoy more, with the possible exception of a two-hour root canal done by a rookie dentist who just had a huge argument with his wife, than to listen to casual observers of Keeneland's track bias rant about how speed-favoring Keeneland's main track was on Blue Grass Day. The purpose of their rant is to downgrade the validity of Sinister Minister's victory.

On some days Keeneland's main track is very speed-biased. On other days it isn't. The key is to know the difference so you can adjust accordingly when the horses who competed that day run back.

Six races were run on the dirt on the Blue Grass card. The winners of the first five races, in chronological order, were located in second, third, third, sixth, and 11th at the first call. If any trend was in force by the time the Blue Grass Stakes was run, it could be argued that the track started out favoring tactical speed in the early races, then shifted to favoring closers just prior to the big race. In the interest of fairness, the fast pace of the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup, which was won by the deep-closing Sun King, probably had an influence on the outcome of that race. But on the other hand, on a truly speed-biased day, front-runners routinely set fast fractions and still hold on to win.

Sinister Minister won the Blue Grass Stakes fair and square, in spectacular fashion. And therein lies the concern. Can he run two spectacular races in a row? There is a clear and decisive answer to that question: Maybe.

I know that doesn't sound clear or decisive, but a definite "maybe" can be very valuable in the world of gambling. Last year the most important question bettors had to ask themselves was whether Bellamy Road could match the sky-high 120 Beyer he earned in his 17 1/2-length triumph in the Wood. The only logical answer was "maybe." At 5-2 odds in a 20-horse field, "maybe" wasn't good enough. I picked against him, and bet against him.

Sinister Minister earned an outstanding 116 Beyer for his Blue Grass victory, but he isn't going to be anything close to 5-2 odds in the Kentucky Derby. I have heard estimates ranging from 10-1 through 15-1. In that price range, "maybe" is more than good enough. "Maybe" is an overlay. And that is all you can reasonably ask for when you make a bet.

The running style creates the trip

A few clever handicappers in the press box liked the chances of Man of Illusion in the Grade 3 Shakertown, a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint run on April 14. Unfortunately, they suffered through a painful loss when that horse checked repeatedly in traffic during the early going, then rallied to finish a contending third, beaten by two lengths. I believe it is fair to say that Man of Illusion was best in that race, and anyone who bet on him to win or used him in the exacta at 5-1 deserves plenty of credit for having made a good bet.

My concern is with the idea that Man of Illusion will be a good bet in his next start. The fact is that running styles usually make trips, and many bettors tend to underestimate the predictability of difficult trips related to the running style of the horse they bet on. When Man of Illusion, who was drawn along the inside in post 3, only showed enough early foot to reach midpack in that 12-horse field, his fate was sealed. It would have been quite a surprise if he did not encounter traffic trouble.

If he turns up in another turf sprint next time, and is drawn inside again, he will have to be very lucky to avoid suffering a similar fate. If he is drawn outside, he will almost certainly have to race wide, perhaps wide enough to lose again. If that scenario occurs, there will be no point in complaining about the lost ground, because his running style made that the most probable scenario.

Given the realistic chance of more trouble of one sort or another, and the likelihood of low odds based on the support Man of Illusion will receive from trip handicappers, he will be an underlaid contender.