05/23/2001 11:00PM

Next time I'll bet the pick four, I swear!

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ELMONT, N.Y. - One of the most frustrating things about this game is that you're given the chance to outsmart yourself daily. Usually more than once.

Last Friday night everyone in my house was either away, working, or having a sleepover at a friend's house. It was just me, Saturday's Daily Racing Form, and a pot of coffee. In other words, perfect conditions for testing out the "Study long, study wrong" theory.

I went over the Belmont and Pimlico cards with a fine-tooth comb, paying particular attention to the pick four sequences at each track. By the time my head hit the pillow it was three o'clock in the morning and I couldn't see straight.

Feeling groggy but thoroughly prepared, I plotted my strategy early Saturday afternoon. Belmont's pick four began with the sixth race, and Here's Zealous looked like a mortal cinch, assuming he didn't bounce. He had returned from a 14-month layoff to wire a preliminary allowance at Aqueduct by a pole, with the kind of pace figure you might expect to see from a stakes-quality sprinter.

The seventh was a second-level allowance at 1 1/4 miles on the inner turf, and the two obvious contenders were Full Flow and Abuzaid. Other possibilities were Blix, who was first-time grass with a 335 Tomlinson; and Berchtesgaden, whose only rival for the early lead was Hondle, who seemed out of his element on turf.

The eighth was the Shuvee Handicap, a five-horse field that was evenly matched and lacked much in the way of early speed.

In the ninth, I liked the Leo O'Brien-trained returnee Come on Now Sean, who was fastest on his "A" race, and who had won his seasonal debut last spring under the same conditions. If he didn't fire, though, this $35,000 turf claimer was wide open.

A few minutes before the sixth, Here's Zealous was 2-5, and I just kind of rationalized my way out of the whole thing, since betting on 2-5 shots is against my religion. "If he wins," I thought, "and one of the logicals wins the seventh, then lots of people are going to go 'all' in the Shuvee, and then I've got to sweat out Come on Now Sean just to get a ham sandwich."

I decided to pass, so of course Here's Zealous didn't bounce and won by eight.

Then I watched in horror as Berchtesgaden crawled through splits of 25.64 seconds, 52.15 and 1:16.51, and kept right on going to turn back Full Flow and light up the board at 34-1.

After Apple of Kent wired the Shuvee at 4-1, Come on Now Sean rallied from far back to get up in the final strides at 6-1, even though I was rooting against him with every fiber of my being.

The $2 pick four on a series of plausible winners was worth $4,444.

While all this was going on, yours truly, Captain Discretion, had also decided to pass on the Preakness pick four.

The first leg was the Schaefer Handicap, where there was little to see beyond the first three betting choices, Perfect Cat, Rize, and Waited.

Hap, Quiet Resolve, North East Bound, and Make No Mistake were tough to separate in the Dixie Handicap, and they were also the first four betting choices.

I was clueless in the Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap, a six-horse sprint in which the pace figured to be brutal, and everyone looked to have a chance depending on how the race unfolded.

In the Preakness, I liked the same three horses as everyone else in the free world.

"It can't possibly pay anything?" I thought. "I'll be lucky to get 8-5 on the whole investment."

When Perfect Cat ($4.80), Hap ($7.20) and Disco Rico ($8.40) won the first three legs, and Point Given rebounded to win the Preakness as a slight favorite at $6.60, the $2 win parlay figured at $239, but the pick four paid more than twice that, an unbelievable $518.

As has happened many times before, and will happen many times in the future, I left the track deeply embroiled in conversation with myself, rehashing the whole mess. Two things seemed clear:

First, on big-event days when there's a lot of uninformed money floating around, exotic bets usually pay more than you think they're going to pay.

Second, bridgejumpers who make their living betting large sums on short-priced standouts should seriously consider leveraging their money in the pick four, especially when the other three legs are inscrutable. A $400 win bet on Here's Zealous returned $560, for a $160 profit. A $1 Here's Zealous-all-all-all pick four (1x8x5x10) also cost $400. It was worth $2,222, which effectively turned a 2-5 shot into a 9-2 payoff.