11/07/2003 1:00AM

McKee shows hefty flat-bet return

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Through Thursday, John McKee and Cornelio Velasquez were tied for second place in the Churchill Downs jockey standings behind Pat Day. Both had ridden 10 winners, and both showed a 14 percent win rate. But their performances have not been anywhere close to equal for bettors.

Those willing to look beyond the jockey standings will discover that McKee's 10 winners have paid much more money than those Velasquez has ridden. Fans of McKee have received $2.91 for every $2 wagered on his 67 mounts. That is a profit of more than 45 percent on an average payoff of $19.50, which is an outstanding return on your money. Those who have bet on every mount ridden by Velasquez have collected $1.46 for each $2, with an average payoff of $10.74, producing a 27 percent loss.

Day, the meet leader, has won with 15 of 48 mounts for an impressive 31 percent win rate. That translates into a $2.12 return and a 6 percent profit. The catch is that it isn't easy to maintain that high of a win rate for very long. What happens to that slender 6 percent edge if his success rate comes back down to the mid-20's?

At an average win price of $6.78, 25 percent wins would give Day's fans a $1.69 return on investment. That certainly would not be Day's fault if it happens. Bettors who overestimate his ability to move a horse up, and who underestimate the numerous other variables that can affect the outcome of a race, are the ones to blame.

Calvin Borel has heated up recently, but his numbers at this meet are still subpar. He has ridden seven winners from 52 mounts, for 13 percent wins. At $10.92 each, they have yielded just a $1.47 return. Shane Sellers is in similar territory with six winners from 36 mounts. His $8.88 average win payoff has produced a $1.48 ROI, for a 26 percent loss.

Rafael Bejarano has been a good friend to longshot players at most meets, with 16 percent wins from a large sample of 1,709 mounts. It is quite remarkable to see that he has maintained a healthy $2.20 ROI over the long haul. Bejarano hasn't yet hit his stride at this meet, scoring with just 8 percent of 68 mounts. But overall he has ridden more than his fair share of winners paying $30, $40, $50, and higher, so he is only a longshot winner or two away from making his numbers look much better. If you see him on a live longshot, pay attention.

Speed is holding on dirt, not grass

The main track at Churchill has been kinder than usual to early and tactical speed. Front-runners have won 16 of 74 main-track races for a solid 21 percent-plus win rate. Horses who were second or third at the first call have added an additional 37 percent wins.

My usual advice is to give extra credit to front-running turf horses who tired at Keeneland when they make their first start on this grass course, since early speed usually carries much better here. However, Churchill's turf course has not yet produced as many front-running winners as it usually does. So far, only two of 16 winners on the grass led at the first call. I'll be cautious about embracing front-runners on that surface until the trend shows signs of returning to the norm.