05/31/2002 12:00AM

Profit on vulnerable odds-on chalks


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Last week I discussed the perils of bridge-jumping, a betting tactic used by players who make large show bets on horses they regard as being all but certain to finish no worse than third in a given race.

The goal is to make a quick five percent profit on the $2.10 show payoff on each bet. The problem is that it takes a ridiculously high 95.24 percent of in-the-money finishes merely to break even, which leaves precious little room for error. If one horse breaks slowly, checks badly in traffic, or suffers through any one of a number of possible bad trips, that single losing bet wipes out 20 winning plays.

Those who haven't been fortunate to win 20 bets before their first losing wager will probably have a hard time digging their way out of the hole they have created for themselves.

I learned something interesting from the feedback I received from readers and colleagues. The typical response was along the lines of: "I read your column, and I couldn't agree with you more. You hit the nail right on the head when you explained how hard it is to make a long-term profit with those small payoffs. You will never catch me making a foolish bet like that, no way, no sir, not a chance."

About half of them stopped at that point. But the other half pointed to a set of past performances, then continued. "But don't you think this horse in the fifth race looks like a sure thing to finish at least third? He'd be a smart show bet, wouldn't he?"

Although these handicappers agree that bridge-jumping is a bad idea in theory, in practice it turns out that you can show half of them just about any odds-on favorite on any day, and they will be fully convinced that he is an exception to the rule.

Most of my friends are unlikely to lose massive amounts of money on show bets, not because they are too smart to do so, but because they lack massive amounts of money in the first place. But that doesn't mean their inability to discriminate between stronger and weaker odds-on favorites is inconsequential.

Remember that large trifecta payoffs are possible when any heavy favorite finishes out of the money, so those of us who view show betting with great disdain have plenty of motivation to learn from the mistakes of bridge-jumpers, and bridge-jumper wannabees.

The biggest mistake bridge-jumpers make is focusing too much on the positive aspects of a horse's form, and not enough on the negative. That is the right formula for evaluating potential win bets on longshots.

Handicappers who were willing to overlook War Emblem's moderate form in his first five career starts, and emphasized his positive recent form, especially his Illinois Derby win, were rewarded handsomely for being optimists when he won the Kentucky Derby.

But it pays to be a pessimist when evaluating bridge-jumping bets or heavy favorites who might deserve to be tossed out of your trifecta tickets.

The ideal candidate for bridge-jumpers should have a record of consistency, strong recent form, dominant Beyers, and enough tactical speed to make trouble unlikely. It is also crucial that the horse isn't being asked to do anything significant that he hasn't done before.

You don't want to bet a horse with excellent sprint form stretching out around two turns for the first time. If he stops, there is no telling how badly he'll tire, and an off-the-board finish is a distinct possibility.

First time on a sloppy track, or in the mud, or on the turf is also a dicey play at small odds, even if the horse's breeding suggests that he should be able to handle the change.

Also, when considering stakes horses, it is important that the race in question is one his connections care about winning. If they view it as being no more than an insignificant prep for much bigger races, you don't want to be onboard.

With all this in mind, take a look at Bet on Sunshine, who was the 7-10 favorite at Churchill on May 15. Bridge-jumpers who hammered him were correct to note that he was classy, consistent, had high percentage connections, and had excellent Beyers. For those more concerned with the upside than the down side, that was enough. But Bet on Sunshine was also a 10-year-old late-running sprinter returning from a six-month layoff. Would he regain his form as quickly at that advanced age as he had when making previous comebacks? Would his connections push this graded-stakes winner hard to run well in a mere allowance race first time back? Would he break alertly after the time off? Would his closing style make him vulnerable to a bad trip?

I can understand why win bettors might have been tempted to give Bet on Sunshine the benefit of the doubt at 7-10. But the potential $1.40 profit on a win bet was 14 times larger than the potential ten-cent gain on a show bet.

At that price, Bet on Sunshine was much too risky as a bridge-jumping candidate. And trifecta players had every right to throw him out of their combinations. Bet on Sunshine broke in the air at the start, was bumped, lost position when he was shuffled back in traffic, then made a mild bid to finish fourth, beaten by two lengths for third. The trifecta in this six-horse field returned a mind-boggling $1,244.40, despite the fact that the 8-5 second betting choice finished third.

Anyone can uncover vulnerable odds-on favorites by using the checklist above.