06/10/2004 11:00PM

Make that $4 to place on Smarty

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The dramatic Belmont Stakes last Saturday generated all sorts of historic numbers, such as the record attendance of 120,139 and the staggering national betting handle of over $105 million for the card. Yet centuries from now, when future civilizations look for signs of intelligent life in the numbers that emerged from this momentous day of racing, the one that may puzzle them most is $3.30.

That's what Smarty Jones paid to place, and the more you think about it, the crazier it is.

Place and show betting are about as hip and popular as high-button shoes and vaudeville these days, and the pools on a Thursday afternoon are so small that the occasional odd payoff emerges by chance. In the Belmont, however, the place pool was already over $3 million when the first flash of betting was posted on the infield tote boards with 55 minutes to post time.

That was when it was clear that this was going to be a very strangely bet Belmont, at least in the win, place, and show pools. A glance at the board showed that over 70 percent of the money in the win pool had been bet on Smarty Jones, but he had attracted just 30 to 35 percent of the place and show money. These percentages had not changed much by post time.

Had Smarty Jones won, he would have paid $2.70 to win and $3.30 to place, perhaps the strangest straight mutuels in Triple Crown history.

The high place price was only slightly a function of longshot Birdstone's being the other place-pool participant. Even had Rock Hard Ten, the second choice in the win and place pools, topped or completed the exacta, Smarty Jones would have paid $3 or more to place.

Just so we're clear on this: If you bet $2 to win, you were going to get back $2.70, and only if Smarty Jones finished first. If you bet $2 to place, you were going to get back $3 to $3.30 if he finished first or second. (It might even have been $3.40 with Caiman or Tap Dance.) This is sort of like having a choice between one scoop of ice cream for $2 or two scoops of the same ice cream for $1. Which sounds like a better deal?

The most popular theory to explain the discrepancy is that people were buying souvenir win tickets on Smarty Jones with no intention of cashing them but instead to auction them on eBay as historic memorabilia. This possibility, however, seems likelier to have accounted for tens of thousands rather than millions of dollars in extra win bets. Even $100,000 in souvenir sales would not have changed the price.

Smarty Jones would have been an automatic place bet under the "Dr. Z System," a method of finding place and show overlays espoused by William Ziemba and Donald Hausch in their 1984 book "Beat the Racetrack." The authors advocated focusing on situations such as last Saturday's that involve a heavy favorite.

"The extreme inefficiency required to have the place payoff exceed the win payoff is rare," they wrote. "It usually occurs when a seemingly unbeatable horse is bet at extremely low odds to win, while the place (and possibly also the show) betting is simply overlooked. The crowd feels that the payoff will be too small to warrant the risk. They could not be more wrong!"

Their examples show that the phenomenon predates eBay and superfectas. In the 1963 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Kelso paid $2.30 to win and $2.40 to place, and a year later in the Mechanicville Purse at Saratoga he paid $2.60 to win and $2.70 to place. In the 1973 Belmont, Secretariat paid $2.20 to win and $2.40 to place, in a five-horse field.

I won't argue with anyone who says that betting to place is as exhilarating as watching paint dry, and that in general it's a mathematically poor proposition because breakage and takeout drain so much of the juice from the prices. Unless you are nursing a very tight bankroll or have an unusual propensity for picking second-place finishers, you will do much better over time betting twice as much to win instead of emulating your grandfather and splitting your tickets between win and place.

Whenever there's a favorite who is 3-5 or less, though, it's always worth checking to see if a horse with more than half the win pool on him has attracted substantially less than half of the place or show betting. Whether or not a 35 percent return ($2.70) on Smarty Jones to finish first was a good bet, a 65 percent return ($3.30) on Smarty Jones to finish first or second was a much, much better one.