12/14/2005 1:00AM

Reflecting on the lessons of 2005

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PHILADELPHIA - While waiting for the next Philadelphia horse to emerge as a Triple Crown contender (and not expecting another one ever) and wondering when exactly all those slot machines and resulting gigantic purses at Philadelphia Park are going to become reality, it is time to consider what was learned in 2005.

Sadly, I found out that a good opinion is often wasted. I fell on Afleet Alex after the Arkansas Derby and managed to turn that opinion into pocket change by the end of the Belmont Stakes.

This game is way too hard to blow an opportunity when you actually get a big-picture item correct. And when you do blow it, you wonder when the next one will come. But it will come, and you've got to learn from what you did wrong.

I learned that the pick four is my new favorite bet. Just about every significant score I made this year came from a pick four. I have a feel for the bet, but I plan to learn a lot more about its nuances.

I learned again that reputations are bestowed rather than earned. Consider Wilko. Why is anybody still talking about Wilko? Why should anybody care that the horse is going to run in the Malibu?

Since Wilko beat Afleet Alex in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile - how did that happen? - Wilko has not won a single race. He was a non-factor in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Saturday, he ran for the first time since the Preakness and finished third in the $50,000 Larkspur Stakes at Golden Gate, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 88. When a horse is 3 for 16 lifetime, one great Grade 1 win does not trump that. Now, Wilko is going to run in the Malibu. Why?

I learned that there are other trainers beyond Todd Pletcher, Richard Dutrow, and Bobby Frankel. But I can't remember their names, because I so rarely bet on any of them. I don't know what it means when three guys seem to win all the big races, but I do know what it means to my betting strategies. I start with them and go from there.

The recent stewards fiasco at Hollywood Park confirmed what I have been preaching for years now: first horse to the wire wins. Lose the stewards. Until there are some standards and some consistency, what is the point? When you can make up rules as you go along, you have anarchy. Is the current system better than "first horse to the wire wins?" With that, you lose the ambiguity. Everybody knows the deal. Now, nobody does.

After spending a football weekend with the oddmakers at Las Vegas Sports Consultants, I learned exactly how point spreads are made. These guys are like stock analysts, but better and more honest. Every piece of information is digested and analyzed. After they spend weekdays staying up to speed, the weekends are for watching as many games as possible. Sundays are for making the college and NFL lines for the following weekend.

Anybody who ever had a voice in a community pick six ticket understands the dynamic. Several of the oddsmakers sit around the office and, one by one, give their line for each game. After discussing the differences, a consensus is reached and a line assigned. After all the lines are made, the data is communicated to the Nevada sports books and lines start to appear on the big boards. Bettors soon follow.

I learned that the new Wynn Las Vegas is something from the 22nd century. I learned that you could lose money so fast at blackjack, it is like you never really had any. I learned just enough about hold'em to be dangerous, mostly to my bankroll. I found out there is much to do in Las Vegas besides gamble, which, in my case, was very helpful to the bottom line.

Finally, I learned what I always knew but sometimes overlooked. Horse racing continues to be the absolute best gambling game ever invented. There are opportunities at the track that are not available in any game of chance. And, in 2006, I plan, again, to get all the money.