08/14/2002 11:00PM

Possibly a winner, but certainly an overlay

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Want to bet on the winner of the Arlington Million? Get in line.

Beat Hollow should win; the best horses usually do. But the Million is never a walkover, and despite Beat Hollow's obvious qualifications, it will not be a walkover this year, either.

A handicapper could regurgitate Beat Hollow's attributes, which are right there in his past performances. Go ahead and look at them. If there is a flaw in his form, it is none too obvious.

Nope, Beat Hollow is just about perfect. A Group 1 winner in France and two-time Grade 1 winner in the U.S., Beat Hollow could inherit another easy lead Saturday. Just like in the Grade 1 Manhattan, which he won by two lengths. Beat Hollow switches from slumping Alex Solis to Jerry Bailey. Beat Hollow is not likely to be trapped behind horses, as he was three weeks ago when he lost at Del Mar.

Trainer Bobby Frankel says he will be disappointed if Beat Hollow loses the Million. Gee, you think?

Beat Hollow. Beat Hollow. Beat Hollow. It's almost as if the Million was a foregone conclusion. It is not. There are no mortal locks. In horse racing, there is no capitulation. Eight others will attempt to upset Beat Hollow in summer's richest turf race. The odds are not in their favor. But horseplayers planning to back the most likely winner will discover the odds are not in their favor, either. They rarely are.

Beat Hollow probably will win the Million. The question is, exactly how probable? Are his chances to win 50 percent? Higher? And will the betting public price him with the same degree of efficiency as always?

Perhaps one should just concede the race to Beat Hollow, and go shopping for a horse to complete the exacta. Golly gee, another old-school wagering technique to recycle. Another way to be a parimutuel wimp.

The problem is Beat Hollow is overexposed. Whatever wagering value he once offered has long since vanished. Beat Hollow has been favored in all nine of his starts, and will be again Saturday. It seems every horseplayer in America is willing to overlook the fact he lost his last start as the 1-2 favorite. Of course, his traffic trouble provided a valid excuse. But four starts back, Beat Hollow lost as the 6-5 favorite. That day, he got outrun.

Beat Hollow is not invincible. No horse is. When Beat Hollow starts at even-money Saturday, he offers no value. Let him win. If he does, so what? If he pays $4, what have you missed?

Horseplayers who want to bet on winners do not need to spend time handicapping. Just look at the board and follow the crowd. In most cases, the horse with the best chance is favored. The Million will be no different. When it comes to picking winners, the world's best handicapper is the betting public as a whole.

The "picking winners" dilemma is one of racing's contradictions, and why consistent racetrack profits are difficult to achieve. While it is important to pick winners, it is more important to accurately assess their true chances. When true odds conflict with actual tote odds, a bettor can turn the odds in his favor.

It rarely happens with short prices. The public is just too good at assessing favorites. The concept of a "low-odds overlay" sounds intriguing, but the theory rarely works in practice. Find a 2-1 shot you believe has a 50 percent chance to win, and chances are you have mistakenly analyzed the horse or the race.

On the other hand, the public does blunder higher up the odds range. There is a greater chance of finding a 20-1 shot who should be 10-1 than finding a 2-1 shot who should be even-money. Trouble is, even when a longshot is overlaid, he still is a likely loser. A horse who should be 10-1 wins only one out of 10 races.

As for the Million, the public is sure to price Beat Hollow with typical efficiency. Bettors who want to cash a ticket can follow the crowd, bet the favorite, and be happy with a $4 win mutuel.

Or, a horseplayer could play to win by backing an overlay. It might be Sarafan. After all, he has defeated Beat Hollow twice already at shorter distances. Other contenders include Grade 1 winner Forbidden Apple, Arlington specialist Falcon Flight, or European Group 1 winner Paolini. Three others appear outclassed - Mystery Giver, Ulundi, and Freefourinternet. Those would be hard to endorse at even the highest of odds.

Cheshire, however, is a fresh face worth considering. He has a history of outrunning his odds. In 2000, he won a listed stakes in France at 18.40-1; in 2001 he won another listed stakes in France at 6.60-1. Most recently, he continued his overachieving ways by winning a Group 3 at odds of 9.80-1.

Clearly, Cheshire, a 1 1/4-mile specialist, is better than European bettors have thought. Might he be better than American bettors think, also?

Cheshire probably is not good enough. But he might be, against a modest American turf division. It seems likely the betting public will mistakenly consider Cheshire a no-hoper and let him loose at 20-1 or more.

In fact, Cheshire's true chances probably are about 1 in 10. If he starts at 20-1, his tote odds would be double what he should be. Conversely, Beat Hollow's odds will be right where they should be.

The wagering question is identifying which horse is more likely to outrun expectations. Is it even-money Beat Hollow, or 20-1 shot Cheshire?

At the finish of the Arlington Million, it's not even close.