04/05/2006 11:00PM

Longshots will be extra motivated

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Our clocks have sprung forward. March Madness is behind us. Easter bunnies are seen everywhere. The thrill of opening day has passed as baseball settles into the daily grind. The Masters is being played this weekend.

Clues are all around that the Kentucky Derby, another rite of spring, is right around the corner. While serious horseplayers have been following the Derby doings since last summer and fall and all through the winter, this is when the casual fans and the general public start to take notice.

This weekend marks the third pool in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager that is offered parimutuelly from coast to coast for handicappers to try to lock in a price on their picks before having to wait until the Derby is run May 6. Here in Las Vegas, players have been able to shop in our fixed-odds lists for months. As such, the odds are pretty much in place for the top contenders. At Wynn Las Vegas, Barbaro - 5-1 on the morning line in Pool 3 - has been bet down to the 4-1 favorite off his victory in last Saturday's Florida Derby.

Considering he hasn't faced fields as tough as the ones that will contest the other Derby preps, and will be trying to buck the trend that says a horse can't win the Derby off a five-week layoff, why are his odds so low?

"He's looked good," said John Avello, race and sports director at Wynn. "Plus, people know he's going to be in the field. We've taken a lot of bets on him. I bet everyone wishes they had him at the 225-1 odds that we opened him at."

Brother Derek was the 7-2 morning-line favorite in the Derby Future Wager in advance of Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, and his odds will likely plummet if he improves to 5 for 5 around two turns. On Thursday morning, however, Wynn had Brother Derek at 6-1, with Lawyer Ron the only other contender in single digits, at 7-1.

"We've got a lot of liability on all of the top contenders," Avello said. "They've been betting them early and often."

It's clear that most of the value has been sucked out of the pools - and the winners from the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, and Illinois Derby this weekend will obviously get pounded in the future wager - so the best values might be found on the longshots in those prep races, either in the individual races or in the fixed-odds Derby futures if you can find the horses ready to step up.

It doesn't make sense to bet the chalk in these prep races. Brother Derek is obviously the most accomplished 3-year-old at this point, but my fear is that he might be peaking too early. The other problem is that everyone is on the bandwagon, and you're not going to get a square price on him, especially if he keeps winning. If Brother Derek is a superhorse and romps through the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby, and beyond, then more power to him.

In the Derby preps, it pays to look for the horses who are improving or need the earnings to make the Derby field. Brother Derek is already a shoo-in to make the 20-horse Derby field, and his connections know it. He might run away with the Santa Anita Derby, but I'm not going to back any horse if there's even a chance he might just be going through a glorified public workout.

Recent Derby prep upsetters: Sharp Humor won the Swale at Gulfstream on March 4 at 13-1, Like Now won the Gotham at Aqueduct on March 18 at 36-1, and With a City won the Lane's End at Turfway Park on March 25 at 48-1. On the strength of those performances, all three got on the Derby trail and are included in this weekend's Derby Future Wager.

As of Thursday morning, I haven't seen the past performances for this weekend's races, but I'll have my eyes on Point Determined and Sacred Light in the Santa Anita Derby; Sweetnorthernsaint and My Golden Song in the Illinois Derby; and Keyed Entry in the Wood Memorial. All of those need more earnings to ensure they'll make the Kentucky Derby field.

As for the fixed-odds futures, Point Determined is 15-1 at Wynn, but the rest of those motivated Derby hopefuls are 25-1 or higher.

Will there be a Triple Crown winner?

On Thursday morning, in between management meetings that keep modern-day race and sports book directors from doing the type of oddsmaking they got in the business to do, Avello was working on Derby proposition wagers and on the elusive Triple Crown.

Avello said he will try to put the props up this weekend for all the fans watching the major prep races. He said he will probably go with an over/under on the running of the race at 2:02, though he added that this year's crop seems a little faster and he might shade it down to 2:01 4/5. The price he was looking at for a Triple Crown winner in 2006 was -1000/+700, meaning a bettor would have to risk $10 for every $1 he wants to win if he doesn't think a horse can sweep the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, or win $7 for every $1 wagered (odds of 7-1) that a horse can pull off the feat.

"It takes a superhorse to win all three races at three different tracks and three different distances over the course of five weeks," Avello said. "But when setting the odds, it's really just a two-race parlay. Someone has to win the Derby, and that's the only horse that can do it, so I try to figure out what their odds would be to then go on to win the Preakness and Belmont, which is difficult, because you always have some new shooters in the Preakness to make it tougher. But then the Belmont might just be a six-horse race, so -1000/+700 looks about right."

Lou D'Amico at the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas also said he will be putting together Derby props in the next week or two.

Wynn working on new tournament

Around the turn of the century, the MGM Grand used to hold a high-end tournament in August called Surf and Turf, which used races from Del Mar and Saratoga.

Avello said he is working on the final details of a similar format at the Wynn called the Wynn Las Vegas $100,000 Guaranteed Horse Race Handicapping Challenge.

It is slated to be held Aug. 11-12 with a $2,000 entry. As the name implies, there is a $100,000 guaranteed prize pool, so Avello would need 50 contestants to break even.

The format will be 15 plays a day, with 14 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers and one $4 win-and-place best bet.

The winner would get at least $35,000, with a total of $65,000 being paid down to the top five overall finishers. In addition, the top three scores on each day will split up daily prizes of $17,500.