12/26/2002 12:00AM

Order and chaos can work in harmony

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Many horseplayers expect to earn their reward in predictable fashion - find winners or overlays and wager accordingly. Analyze a race, and bet to win. The approach is simple, and frequently sufficient - a diet of bread and water.

But this winter at Santa Anita, ordinary strategy would leave a lot on the table. Bettors able to combine two seemingly opposite concepts - order and chaos - will position themselves for potentially lucrative payoffs in the trifecta.

The contradiction is not as bizarre as it seems. Orderly handicapping applies only to identifying logical contenders. It says nothing about the slag of the field - those no-hope outsiders. Most of the time, handicappers can easily eliminate such outsiders. And yet, these so-called "throw-outs" may come in handy now that Santa Anita has expanded field size, and they create potentially gargantuan payoffs in the trifecta.

For the first time, up to 14 starters - and 14 wagering interests - will be allowed in Santa Anita sprints at three distances - six furlongs, 6 1/2 furlongs, and seven furlongs. There will be no mutuel field The expansion of field size will lead to corresponding higher trifecta payoffs. Basic math shows why.

In a 12-horse field, there are 1,320 possible trifecta combinations (12x11x10). In a 14-horse field, there are 2,184 possible trifecta combinations (14x13x12). That is almost two-thirds more possible combinations from adding only two runners.

The sheer number of potential combinations in a 14-horse field creates a cost barrier. While the number of potential combinations is higher, there is not expected to be a corresponding increase in size of pools. Therefore, fewer winning tickets will be sold - trifecta bets will be spread out over a greater number of combinations. Higher payoffs will be the result.

Trifecta payoffs in 14-horse fields will be modest when the finish order includes obvious contenders. Even in a large field, a $1 trifecta comprising the first three wagering choices should not exceed $100.

However, the trifecta payoff should be in four figures under the following scenario - the favorite runs out, the second choice wins, a mid-priced runner is second, and a "throw-out" defies logic by picking up the pieces to finish third at odds of 50-1 or more. While there are some 50-1 shots that figure in the three-hole, most do not. So the question remains - how to bet?

Many trifecta bettors surrender and use "all" for the third slot. This makes little sense, because the main purpose of "all" is to capture the occasional 50-1 shot in the three-hole. It does a bettor little benefit to have "all" when a low-odds horse finishes third.

Rather than hoping a longshot runs third, a bettor instead might insist that something chaotic occurs. In other words, structure the trifecta wager so that a longshot must finish third in order to win the bet.

For example, some bettors fashion a trifecta in way that is similar to a three-horse exacta box. An example: 1-2-3 with 1-2-3 with "all," a $1 trifecta bet that costs $72 in a 14-horse field (3x2x12). While the strategy of boxing horses deserves further discussion, assume for this illustration it is proper. The described strategy guarantees a bettor will win the trifecta if he wins the exacta. But a bettor is not likely to make a score unless a longshot finishes third.

Using the boxing scheme, it makes more sense to structure the bet using both pools - the exacta and the trifecta. An example of a $1 trifecta: 1-2-3 with 1-2-3 with the six longest shots in the race. In a 14-horse field, the bet costs only $36 (3x2x6). The other $36 that was saved could be used for a $6 exacta box using horses 1-2-3.

Under the second scenario, a bettor would only win the trifecta if an unpredictable longshot gets up for third. Otherwise, if an underlay contender runs third, the bettor would win the $1 exacta six times and lose the trifecta bet. In those cases where a low-odds runner finished third, the trifecta is likely be underlaid anyway.

While 14-runner fields are not likely to be carded with great regularity, bettors who have considered trifecta wagering strategy will find themselves already a step ahead.

The sensible approach is to identify the first two finishers through standard handicapping - pick the exacta. But to fully exploit a 14-horse field, trifecta bettors might insist for something entirely unpredictable to transpire in the three-hole.

Horseplayers willing to combine those two contradictory notions - order and chaos - will be in position for a lucrative trifecta payoff this winter at Santa Anita.