10/01/2003 11:00PM

Not all who tried to beat Azeri were smart


ARCADIA, Calif. - The geniuses came out of hiding after Azeri lost Sunday for the first time in 20 months. Postrace expertise is so, well, expert. Gosh, some of the geniuses wondered, how could anyone be surprised that Azeri lost?

Azeri's coat looked dull. You could see it the paddock.

She did not train hard enough, or far enough. You could see it on her tab - no works beyond five furlongs.

Azeri carried too much weight, giving away 10 pounds and more to a good field in the Lady's Secret.

Further, there was a rabbit to soften up Azeri, whose recent races suggested she had lost her zip. She did not crack 47 seconds for the opening half in her two previous starts. And on Sunday, Azeri was racing over the only track where she had been defeated.

The concerns were valid perhaps, in hindsight. But few sensible handicappers predicted defeat for the reigning Horse of the Year. Azeri did not figure to lose the Lady's Secret. Sure, there are always concerns. But predicting defeat would have been as foolish as predicting defeat for Cigar when he was kayoed in the 1996 Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

And yet, there was a perfectly rational motive for wagering against Azeri on Sunday. It was not because of her appearance, or workouts, or the weight she would carry. The reason for wagering against her was price.

No horse - in any race - is invincible. Not Cigar. Not Azeri. Not Mineshaft, and not Halfbridled.

Azeri was hammered to 1-5, and even the handicapping majority that predicted victory had to believe the risk of her defeat was far greater than the potential reward. An old-school win bet on logical second choice Got Koko was one sensible alternative. There were exactas, trifectas, and quinellas to consider, and multiple-race wagers taking a stand against Azeri in pick threes, daily doubles, and the pick six.

The Oak Tree Racing Association opted not to offer show wagering on the six-horse field. Nevertheless, the "phantom plungers" - those bettors who wager large sums to show on "sure winners" - had an outlet in the place pool. They took the bait. The amount wagered to place on Azeri represented more than 80 percent of the pool.

Recognizing the lunacy of such a wagering scheme, some other bettors wager against the lopsided price. "Sure winners" do occasionally run out, and produce inflated show prices on the others. It seemed the right thing to do Sunday. Azeri did not figure to run out, but if she did, it would be jackpot time.

Azeri was in trouble immediately. Jockey Mike Smith later said she was unusually quiet in the post parade, and she was void of energy or enthusiasm leaving the gate. Azeri was slow into stride, and could not keep pace early. Smith had nothing under him. Azeri was climbing, uncomfortable, and ran poorly.

It was later determined that Azeri had bled, and tests afterward showed a high white blood count that signaled a brewing illness. Azeri was sick, and she ran like it. She misfired.

Bettors who wagered to place on Got Koko and Elloluv were in clover. Bettors who wagered $276,195 to place on Azeri (from a $339,661 total) were in trouble. Not for long. Stewards disqualified runner-up Elloluv from second to fourth, moving Azeri from third to second. The phantom plungers were saved. The contrarians were out of luck. This time.

But while the philosophy of place bettors was proper, the Lady's Secret was not the race to do it. The lopsided place action on Azeri was not lopsided enough. A bettor with a pocket calculator could have known it beforehand.

Had a bettor taken time to calculate probable place payoffs minutes before post, he might not have placed the wager against Azeri because of its limited upside.

The total place pool was $339,661. That number is multiplied by .8457 (the percentage of the pool returned to winning bettors; 15.43 percent comes off the top), which equals $287,251.

Next, the amount to place on Got Koko ($27,211) and original runner-up Elloluv ($19,439) is subtracted, which leaves $240,871. That number is divided in half (half returned to Got Koko's backers, half to Elloluv), which leaves $120,433. Finally, that number is divided by Got Koko's place pool, which results in odds to place. If Azeri ran out, Got Koko's place odds would have been 4.40-1; Elloluv's place odds would have been 6.10-1.

It turns out, there would have been no jackpot for place bettors, even if Elloluv had not been disqualified. Payoffs of $10.80 and $14.20 do not qualify as a major score.

Although the Lady's Secret Handicap was not memorable from a wagering perspective, the race will not be forgotten. It speaks to a handicapping fundamental - the current form of the defending Horse of the Year.

The Lady's Secret was the third straight race - and fourth this year in five starts - in which Azeri has been unable to run the opening half-mile in less than 47 seconds.

Azeri has lost her speed. She is not the same brilliant mare who reeled off 11 straight. Her deteriorating form is right there in black and white. For most handicappers, the decline became apparent one race too late to exploit. Of course, there is always the chance that Azeri will race again.

And if she does, victory would be a lot more surprising than Azeri's defeat last weekend.