02/12/2004 12:00AM

Play the field? That's no fun

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NEW YORK - You could say that the race for this year's Kentucky Derby began four winters ago when the class of 2004 was being conceived, or that it began in earnest last month when that foal crop officially turned 3. For parimutuel purposes, however, it began Thursday, with the opening of Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

At 12:01 p.m. sharp, the rows of zeroes on the live-odds display available on the Internet began changing to pools and prices as early-arriving bettors made the first parimutuel bets on this year's Derby. By 12:05 there was $315 in the pool with the all-others mutuel field the 9-5 favorite and Second of June the second choice at 7-1. Derby season had truly begun.

Why anyone would bet the Future Wager on Thursday when the pools are open until Sunday is a mystery. Your horse could step on a rock between now and then, and there are no refunds. More important, there is plenty of relevant racing on Saturday at Gulfstream, with Read the Footnotes and Second of June in the Fountain of Youth and Birdstone making his sophomore debut in an allowance race.

Why not wait until they run? Aren't bettors who show up an hour before first post on a Thursday in February supposed to know better?

Perhaps a few of them outsmarted themselves last year during Pool 1 and resolved to bet blindly this year. A year ago at this time, Funny Cide had made just one start at 3, finishing fifth after a hopeless trip from post 13 in the Holy Bull. He lingered around 40-1 for most of the weekend, went completely ignored as the late Sunday money flooded in on Badge of Silver, and closed at 93-1.

On Derby Day, people who got $27.60 on Funny Cide felt pretty smart, but not as smart as if they had taken $188 in Pool 1.

In the five years of the Future Wager, Pool 1 has offered a superior price on the eventual winner three times. In addition to Funny Cide, Fusaichi Pegasus paid $27.80 in Pool 1 and just $6.60 when he won the 2000 Derby. The next year, Monarchos was $36.60 in Pool 1 and $23 on Derby Day.

Neither Charismatic in 1999 nor War Emblem in 2002 were available as individual betting interests in Pool 1, and paid far below their Derby mutuels as members of the Pool 1 mutuel field. Someday, the tote companies will consult some competent teenagers and figure out how to offer more than 24 betting interests in the Future Wager. Until then, the mutuel field will be favored every year.

It took only 14 minutes to become the odds-on choice Wednesday. The pool, which stood at $463 at 12:10, jumped to $30,783 at 12:15, apparently due to a single $30,000 bet on the field, which suddenly was 1-10 with all 23 other choices offering 99-1.

The timing on this bet was clearly deliberate and strategic, designed to keep others from betting on the field while tempting them with temporarily inflated odds on the other choices. By Sunday at 6:30 p.m. when the pool closes, the field will have floated up to somewhere in the 2-1 neighborhood. Someone will be trying to triple his $30,000 on the position that none of the 23 leading candidates for the Derby as of this moment will end up in the winner's circle 11 weeks hence.

It's a fascinating proposition, impossible to peg precisely with just five years of data amid a changing game. For decades, the Derby winner was usually a familiar colt who had run in graded stakes at 2, but more recently the winner has just as often been a sudden and late bloomer. The connection between major 2-year-old stakes and the 3-year-old classics has never been shakier.

It may be a reasonable bet to play against all of today's leading lights, but it doesn't sound like much fun to spend the next three months rooting against 23 different horses. The upside is that any time a new face emerges, you've got him in your stable. Last year, only seven of the original Pool 1 horses made it to the Derby, so a Pool 1 field bet gave you a nine-horse entry in a Derby field of 16 - but the best you did was run fifth with Eye of the Tiger. The first four finishers all were Pool 1 interests, all at bigger prices there than they were on Derby Day: Funny Cide (93-1 vs. 12-1), Empire Maker (5-1 vs. 5-2), Peace Rules (32-1 vs. 6-1), and Atswhatimtalknbout (13-1 vs. 8-1).

I'll probably wait until Sunday and see if there are any more horses who ran triple-digit Beyers at 2, had impossible trips in their only start at 3, and are still sitting on the board at 93-1 - but I'm not holding my breath.