02/12/2009 12:00AM

NYRA's pick four pool is guaranteed. Hitting it isn't.


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Nothing says "I love you" like cold, hard cash, so horseplayers looking to score points with their Valentines may want to forgo the candy and flowers in favor of Saturday's late pick four at Aqueduct, which ushers in a weekly guaranteed pool of $250,000.

The guarantee doesn't provide any tangible value (unless the pool falls short of the minimum), but there is enough potential value in pick fours to begin with. Consider the early pick four at the Big A last Friday, when Putin ($4.40), See More Spirit ($19), First Communion ($11.60), and Exclusive Scheme ($8.70) linked for a $2 payoff of $4,309, a bonus of more than 400 percent over the win parlay.

The key to such a financial stimulus was See More Spirit's upset in the second leg over the entry of Targe and Almighty Silver, which at 4-5 represented the shortest price in the sequence. The windfall also provided a resounding demonstration that you need not be a wise-guy contrarian in every race. Putin was a potential single. First Communion was third choice, and Exclusive Scheme was one of four closely grouped contenders between 5-2 and 3-1. What's so hard about that?

Ah, if only it were that easy. But as regular pick-four bettors will tell you, playing on a shoestring with any degree of success is exceptionally difficult.

Those tempted to dive into the pool Saturday face 9,072 potential combinations, with a pair of 12-horse maiden claimers book-ending the deal.

Race 6: Right away you're faced with a critical decision regarding morning-line favorite Charming Officer, who is stuck in post 11 dropping from maiden special-weights. She's been first out of the gate in all seven starts, but early speed hasn't held any significant edge on the inner track this winter, and she figures to be overemphasized in all pools with money-magnet Ramon Dominguez aboard.

Small tickets looking to skate through with a three-spot will also gravitate to Eastern Prime, beaten at about 7-5 in two sprints at the meet, and drop-down Winning Punch.

The Valentine's Day hunch play at 50-1 on the morning line is Wild in Love, a 5-year-old second-time starter returning with a trainer change, a Lasix-and-blinkers makeover, and a switch to Orlando Bocachica, whose eight winners this winter include four that paid $51 or more.

Race 7: The lukewarm morning-line favorites are Callmetony and Morine's Victory, a pair of remarkable 8-year-old geldings returning from layoffs.

Callmetony recorded a 107 Beyer Speed Figure in his 51st start, and if there's another horse who has run that fast with as much mileage on the odometer, his name escapes me. Morine's Victory, 18 for 41 lifetime, has been absent since trading decisions with Callmetony late in 2007.

It's tough to commit to either or both of the veteran comebackers on the blind, so I'd be inclined to cast a wide net and also use First Degree, who has been idle eight weeks but won twice off workouts last year; Chief Export, who boasts sharp recent form; and Bill Place, the 2007 Bay Shore winner, who has been claimed seven times since last March.

Race 8: Icabad Crane might have been second in last year's Preakness with some better luck, and his two races at the end of the year indicate he has recovered from the rigors of a demanding four-race stretch last spring. By the numbers, his return out of the chute matched his Preakness effort; and the Alex M. Robb had a first quarter in 24.91 seconds and a fourth quarter in 24.38 - a slow-fast "race shape" that worked to the advantage of pace-pressing winner R Clear Victory, and made it tough for Icabad Crane to generate any serious late momentum.

Temporary Saint was forced to go around four horses late on the far turn in a third-level optional claimer last out. He basically has held good form for the past year, and also rates serious consideration.

Race 9: The road to $250,000 concludes with a classic conundrum of winter racing in New York. Masterofthehouse and My Boy J J have the best figures, but they are 5-year-old maidens who are a combined 0 for 45. A similar situation occurred in Wednesday's nightcap, however, as Nolite Timere rolled past the leaders to win his maiden by open lengths on the 24th try.

I'm also using Special Trip, who showed some ability in his only start at Calder last summer; Mr. Bogart, whose best race puts him in the hunt; and Dognapper, a stranger out of special-weight races at Suffolk Downs and Finger Lakes.