02/12/2004 12:00AM

Price changes make win bets too risky

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Last Saturday night, I went to the Saratoga harness track, which is now officially called Saratoga Gaming and Raceway since their VLT parlor opened for business about two weeks ago. The slots (can we just call them slots?) are expected to rejuvenate the upstate harness industry, but for now, the quality of the local standardbred population is none too classy, and on-track handle on the live racing product is anemic.

The pools are so low that, even with five or six minutes to post, horses might have all of $10 or so bet on them to win, place, or show. This means even a relatively small bet has a profound effect on the odds.

"Watch this," I said to my friend as we stepped up to the window for one race, "I'm going to rock the toteboard."

With that, I called out a $5 win bet, and on the next flash the horse went from 12-1 to 8-1.

"That's so cool," said my betting buddy, and then we both had a good laugh and proceeded to watch the horse go off-stride.

The next afternoon at Santa Anita, a more newsworthy odds-drop took place in the featured Sham Stakes for 3-year-olds. Master David, the eventual winner, left the gate at 2-1 and then went to 11-10 in the final flash as the field rounded the clubhouse turn.

Never mind that Master David won a race that Empire Maker lost at 2-5 last year, and that he has put Bobby Frankel among the major players on the Kentucky Derby trail once again. For horseplayers, the price change was surely the top news in the Thoroughbred world last weekend. These after-the-bell reshuffles should shake the foundations of any long-time win bettor's value-belief system.

Santa Anita is no rinky-dink county fair. Over $1.4 million was bet on the Sham Stakes alone, excluding the multi-race exotic pools. Imagine the kind of five-figure punch, most likely emanating from an off-shore rebate emporium, that it took to cut Master David's price almost in half.

These kinds of mammoth last-second bets have been in play since Monarchos' Florida Derby score three years ago this March, and seem to be occurring more often. At Aqueduct on Jan. 17, Seattle Fitz was 4-1 into the first turn of the Aqueduct Handicap and wound up paying $7.40. Three races later, Our Tune was 17-1 on the first turn and was hit to 11-1 on the last flash.

There will be more instances like the ones involving Seattle Fitz, Our Tune, and Master David until updated tote technology can process bets and display odds much closer to real-time - something that apparently may be possible by the end of this year, according to one NYRA management official in the know.

Until, and unless, that happens, the little financial lifeguard in my head has ordered me out of the win pool, and anyone else who makes his own betting lines should consider the same response, if he hasn't already toweled off.

How many bettors do you suppose set Master David's playable odds at something like 8-5, deemed him a good bet, and then watched in dismay as he went to even-money during the running?

There is probably no chicanery involved (emphasize "probably"). Winners' odds sometimes go up, too. But that's also a problem when you make a horse 3-1, forsake him at 2-1 going to the gate, and then watch him shoot up to 4-1 down the backstretch. For players who've spent years learning how to let a horse win without them because the price is too low, who needs the aggravation of seeing unplayable horses suddenly become playable after the closing bell?

For four main reasons, my alternative will primarily settle on the pick four:

Value: The takeout is higher than straight, place, and show, but it is spread out over four races, which is one of the main reasons payoffs routinely outperform parlays. On Jan. 31, Aqueduct's pick-four sequence of Lady Libby ($23.40), Stake ($8.20), She's Zealous ($9), and Lord Langfuhr ($4.10) produced a $2 payoff of $2,318 that was nearly three times as much as the parlay.

Leverage: The pick four offers a way to capitalize on standouts at unappetizingly low odds, like Lord Langfuhr, and turn them into a big score. Just this past Sunday, a press box colleague fashioned a play around Kazoo ($3.40), who was the lone speed from the outside post in a five-horse sprint and looked for all the world to be a lead-pipe cinch. He keyed Kazoo with two horses in another leg, hit the "all" button in the other two races, and collected half of $12,468 when Speckled Spice won the nightcap at 58-1. Total outlay was $120, which was, for all intents and purposes, a win bet on a 3-5 shot.

Chaos: Maybe you've noticed there are a lot of Speckled Spices running around these days, especially during the current winter meet at The Big A, where favorites are swimming upstream at under 30 percent.

In the new millennium of space-age meds, super trainers, year-round racing, and cheap speed, the form cycle of the Thoroughbred is more volatile than ever - they bounce, they don't bounce, they disappear, they return for a cup of coffee, and disappear - and there is less and less rhyme or reason to validate lessons learned in Handicapping 101.

By latching onto a standout in the pick four, you don't have to be a sharpshooter in the tough races or when a favorite looks vulnerable. The chaos works for you, not against you.

Tactics: Most pick four players are underfunded, typically venturing a single 1x2x2x3 ticket for $12 that includes the most obvious contenders. When the MOTO (Master Of The Obvious ) horses win, the payoff is minimal, but when these paper tigers succumb to fringe contenders "outside the box," payoffs soar.

Players who take the time to learn the nuances of multiple tickets gain a significant edge weighting their wagers according to their handicapping opinions.