02/12/2003 12:00AM

Playing the field a dumb move? You could do worse

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Memories are short, particularly mine. I'm always forgetting the grocery shopping list, the chores my wife wants me to do, and my strategy for the Kentucky Derby Future Pool.

The grocery shopping and the chores I forget because I don't enjoy shopping or housework. My Derby Future strategy I forget because of ego and greed.

Every year I want to cash a huge ticket on the race, thump my chest, and proclaim that I picked the winner of the Derby in February.

This year is no different. When the entries for the first pool came out a day or two ago, I began analyzing form and searching for my longshot winner.

Then something came back to me from a distant corner of my brain, reminding me that the field has been consistently the best wager in these Futures.

I'd like to say that I remembered all the specifics of why this was the case. I didn't.

But the Daily Racing Form archive at drf.com remembers all, and thankfully, I can remember to access it.

What I found was an interesting article written by my colleague Brad Free. Published a week or so after the Derby last year, his data warrants repeating with the Derby Futures now under way again.

Here's some of the information he found. For starters, how many of last year's 23 individual Derby Future prospects from Pool 1 competed in the Kentucky Derby? Five, meaning less than 22 percent.

Of the five that started, the prices had to be huge, right? No.

Harlan's Holiday closed at 17-1 in Pool 1, nearly three times his 6-1 Derby odds. Otherwise, the odds were unappealing when you consider that selection of these horses had to take place three months before the race.

Johannesburg was 7-1 in Pool 1; his Derby odds were 8-1. Saarland was 11-1 in Pool 1; he ran poorly in two preps and was 6-1 in the Derby. Came Home was 14-1 in Pool 1; he went off at 8-1 in the Derby. Finally, Request for Parole was 58-1 in Pool 1, and was a 29-1 longshot in the Derby.

One could argue that last year was not representative of the predictability of 3-year-olds in the spring.

What predictability? For the second time in four years, the Derby winner (War Emblem in 2002 and Charismatic in 1999) was not listed individually in any of the three Future Pools

As Free points out, "The last five Derby winners include two who in early January had yet to win a race [Monarchos and Fusaichi Pegasus]. Another had lost at Santa Fe Downs as a 2-year-old [Real Quiet]; yet another lost a claiming race three months before winning the Derby [Charismatic]. Finally [in 2002], the winner was a horse whose claim to fame was a loose-on-the-lead victory at Sportsman's Park [War Emblem]."

So what should a bettor do, play the field and root against the 23 individual options? It has been a good move in past years. The field, betting option No. 24, has been the winner in 6 of the 12 Derby Future Wager pools.

If we picked 50 percent winners, our friends would consider us handicapping geniuses. Yet it seems many bettors look down upon field players, as if they were novice, show-ticket bettors.

Call them novices if you want, but they have been the ones cashing the bets.

Free noted in his column last year that value might still be found in the field option, although I am less optimistic. Value was present in the field last year, and in 1999 when Charismatic won the Derby.

Excluding the first year of the Future Wager - when bettors were learning their way as they went along - the odds on the field have been approximately 3-1 in Pool 1 of the Future bet.

But on the heels of a year in which War Emblem led the field to victories in all three pools, I would expect support for the field to grow.

Sooner or later, the betting public will catch on to the success of the field as much as they would to betting on a leading rider. The price will drop.

If the public bets down the field to 5-2 or less, as I'm expecting, I'll likely pass on Pool 1 of the Derby Future Wager.

That's just as well. I'd probably forget where I put my ticket.