01/19/2006 1:00AM

Pick right pool, or get drowned


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Back in the day, the glorious run through the 1970's, making money at the races was like shooting fish in a barrel. For the most part it was still the only game in town, and most of the money being pushed through the betting windows was hopelessly uninformed.

The small percentage of us who had read the Big Four breakthrough books - "Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing," Andy Beyer's "Picking Winners," Bill Quirin's "Winning at the Races," and Steve Davidowitz's "Betting Thoroughbreds" - had an enormous advantage. The masses were still betting on the "class" horse, so with the exception of a small coterie of sheet players who were considered a lunatic fringe, hardly anyone was consistently wagering on the fastest horses in the race, because hardly anyone knew who they were.

For those of us who had seen "the way, the truth, and the light," life was sweet, and when the Off-Track Betting office opened at 72nd Street and Broadway in my Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan, life got even sweeter. That branch became the next-best thing to a personal automated teller machine. Whenever you needed cash for sports tickets, Christmas shopping, whatever, you did a little homework and made a withdrawal.

The first time I took my wife-to-be to the races was Jockey Club Gold Cup Day in 1981, a card that co-featured the Champagne Stakes. This was about two months after we had met, and Robin was impressed. How could she not be? Belmont Park on a mild October afternoon is the most majestic place on Earth, and the place was buzzing like Madison Square Garden on the night of a heavyweight title fight.

Timely Writer was the fastest horse in the Champagne, but the fact that his connections were from Suffolk Downs threw most bettors off the scent, so the standout 2-year-old in the field was 8-1. A short while later, we bet on John Henry at 3-1 in the Gold Cup because, well, he was John Henry. The old boy staved off the starter handicap star Peat Moss under a furious drive by Bill Shoemaker, and Robin had won her first photo finish. Suddenly, it was okay that her boyfriend spent most of his time at the racetrack.

Recently, Robin asked why I don't paint her palm with Ben Franklins as often as I used to. I read her a passage from Ted McClelland's "Horseplayers," published last year, that described the travails of a bettor known as Bob the Brain:

"Mass-marketed speed figures made a lot of terrible players average players. The odds on figure standouts in the seventies and eighties were quite attractive, especially on horses going up in class off a win. Suddenly, you couldn't get overlays on figure horses. You had to find other ways to win - you had to make a betting line or bet pick threes."

They don't call him Bob the Brain for nothing. I've given up trying to be a wise guy looking for 6-1 shots that offer value in the win pool, because the pool is full of piranhas devouring each other. Legitimate overlays are harder to come by with each passing day, and it has become my experience that a steady diet of esoteric and interesting overlays is a surefire way to go from zero to 20 straight losers in an hour or two of simulcast action.

I become unglued during cold streaks, and I can't grind it out in the straight pool on lower-odds contenders, either, because there isn't enough margin of error. I'm terrible at exactas, trifectas, and superfectas, because the horse that figures to be the second-best horse in a race is rarely the one who finishes second, and anyone can run third or fourth. And with three college educations to pay for, I can't afford to play the pick six properly.

That leaves pick threes and pick fours, and for the time being these will either be my downfall or my salvation. Here, leveraged value is a 5-2 shot, if everyone else is keying off the 8-5 favorite you happen to dislike.

The two pick fours on the Jan. 12 card at Aqueduct both paid about twice the win parlay. A 13-1 first-time starter in a field of seven maidens started off the first one, followed by a trio of routine winners at 3-1, 5-2, and 7-5. No real razzle-dazzle, but the pick four paid $2,283.

The late pick four was bookended by a co-second choice at 7-2 and a 9-5 favorite, and in between were winners at 5-1 and 6-1. The thing paid $2,311, and the 5-1 winner was my best bet of the day.

Unbelievable. If you focused on a couple of the logical winners and picked the right legs to spread, either of those pick fours was there for the taking.

Anyway, I know all this is easier said than done, but that is my game plan. Hopefully, it's not yours.