08/20/2003 11:00PM

Pick four strategy is key to success

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The only sure thing about Travers Day seems to be that it won't be raining, which at least means the stellar undercard won't be monsooned into a muddy mess like last year, when 25 horses comprised the entire $1 million pick four, which paid $135.

That's the good news. The bad news for small-to-medium scale bettors is that the degree of difficulty increases exponentially. With field sizes of three, five, eight, and nine, there were 1,080 possible outcomes in last year's Travers Day pick four. As matters stand before any late scratches in this sequence, going all-all-all-all (9x11x13x7) yields 9,009 combinations this time around.

Navigating your way through a sequence of competitive graded stakes races is tough, especially if you're on a budget. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try, because pick four payoffs exceed four-horse win parlays upward of 75 percent of the time, at least on the New York circuit. Through the first four weeks at Saratoga, a total of 24 racing days, pick fours outpaid parlays 17 times, and there were two virtual ties. The first pick four this week contained two favorites and two grass winners at 9-1 and 6-1, and it paid more than twice the parlay, $2,571 vs. $1,139.

Snaring at least two non-favored winners is the key. When three very logical horses are in the mix, the payoff won't be much to write home about. Blow up two chalks, though, and most small tickets crash and burn.

By distinguishing between your key contenders and your marginal contenders - your "A" and "B" horses as described by Barry Meadow in his excellent book "Money Secrets At The Racetrack" - it is possible to cover a wider range of possibilities by filling out multiple tickets. A single pick four ticket of 5x3x5x4 would cost $300 for a $1 ticket. But by designating one key horse in each race and insisting that at least two of them win, all 17 contenders remain in play, and the cost is only $76. As you become familiar with the process, especially difficult races may prompt you to take two, three or more keys, increasing the cost as you see fit. The favorable upside to this little bit of extra work is that you construct bets that reflect your handicapping opinion of the races.

Two days out, my preliminary overview of Saturday's pick four stands as follows:

Leg 1, Ballston Spa - Did I miss the memo that every European grass filly with potential goes to Bobby Frankel when it arrives in the United States? Sea of Showers traded decisions with now-stablemate Heat Haze to begin her career in France, a tip-off that she also would be formidable in the U.S. After three freakishly strong stretch-running wins at escalating class levels, the sky's the limit for Sea of Showers, who should benefit from firmed-up Spa turf that is favoring closers.

Sea of Showers is the key. Included as back-ups are Stylish, who may be cycling back to her top figure, and the trio coming out of the Grade 1 Diana Handicap - Wonder Again, Snow Dance, and Quick Tip.

Leg 2, Fourstardave - Both turf courses, to stress the point, have been turbo-boosting the closers. Based on their recent exploits, the best closing kick in the field belongs to War Zone and Trademark, the one-two finishers in the Poker Handicap. War Zone comes from farther off the pace than Trademark, and has also been rested since the Poker. He is the choice for a key over Trademark, a 7-year-old four weeks removed from a 110 Beyer Speed Figure in the Bernard Baruch Handicap, and a possible bounce. Quest Star is the other back-up. He turns back from the longer Bowling Green Handicap, where he finished second, in-between Whitmore's Conn and Macaw - subsequently one-two in the Sword Dancer.

Leg 3, King's Bishop - Perhaps the toughest race in the sequence. Zavata and Valid Video come off 10-point jumps to new Beyer tops in shorter sprints; Posse comes off an alarmingly dull prep behind Zavata; Great Notion and Ghostzapper aren't far behind.

Take two keys: Zavata is pushing the envelope at seven-eighths, but there isn't a ton of speed to go after him early and he was rateable as a 2-year-old. Ghostzapper is first-time stakes for Frankel after two good-looking allowance wins off the bench in blinkers.

Leg 4, Travers - Empire Maker is doubtful. Funny Cide, according to trainer Barclay Tagg, is 75 percent to run, which to his way of thinking means highly unlikely. Congrats will run if Empire Maker doesn't. Funny Cide moves from unlikely to possible if Empire Maker is out.

I'll key the horse nobody is talking about. Sky Mesa first came to prominence on this track, and is just now approaching his peak after a strong effort in the Haskell chasing a loose Peace Rules. The latter seemed likely to start as of this writing, which means Sky Mesa could fall into a great trip stalking Peace Rules and Strong Hope.

Back-ups: Main speed Strong Hope, a gritty fighter who has won several close finishes; the newly blinkered Ten Most Wanted, who moved four wide on a rail-favoring track into the fastest split of the Swaps; and whichever colt Frankel runs.

Using all these horses on one ticket would cost $300. With one key in three legs, and two keys in the King's Bishop, the cost is reduced to $102, and no one is whittled from the play. The requirement is that at least two keys, any two, must win. The play involves 11 separate tickets:

1st - 2 with 3 with 8,9 with 7

2nd - 2 with 3 with 8,9, with 1,3,4

3rd - 2 with 3 with 1,2,3 with 7

4th - 2 with 1,5 with 8,9 with 7

5th - 3,5,6,7, with 3 with 8,9 with 7

6th - 3,5,6,7 with 3 with 8,9 with 1,3,4

7th - 2 with 1,5 with 8,9 with 1,3,4

8th - 2 with 3 with 1,2,3 with 1,3,4

9th - 3,5,6,7 with 3 with 1,2,3 with 7

10th - 2 with 1,5 with 1,2,3 with 7

11th - 3,5,6,7 with 1,5 with 8,9 with 7