04/01/2003 1:00AM

Seeking value in Derby futures


Las Vegas - If you're looking to find value on the top Kentucky Derby contenders in the fixed-odds future books of Las Vegas, that boat sailed long ago. But if things break right this weekend in the Derby preps - the Santa Anita Derby, Illinois Derby, and Aventura Stakes - there may be some value available in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

Empire Maker and Atswhatimtalknabout have been bet down to 3-1 and 6-1, respectively, at the Park Place race books (Caesars Palace, Bally's Paris, Flamingo, Las Vegas Hilton, Reno Hilton, Caesars Tahoe, and Flamingo Laughlin) and Coast Casinos (The Orleans, Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, Suncoast).

John Avello, horse racing oddsmaker for the Park Place Entertainment casinos, points to the fact that some bettors wanted to bet Empire Maker before he even ran a race. Avello opened him at 150-1 and took some big bets, lowered his odds and took some more. Early birds continued to bet him down and, as of Monday, he was at ridiculously low odds of 3-1, with a month until the Derby and most of the major preps still to be run.

"We've taken as much as we want to take on him," Avello said. In fact, Avello has had to raise the odds on other contenders in order to get action on other horses.

But that doesn't mean you're out of luck if you really think Empire Maker will be Bobby Frankel's first Derby winner.

Empire Maker doesn't run until the Wood Memorial next week, so if this weekend's winners get too much attention, the KDFW odds could drift higher than those available in Vegas. The colt's odds probably won't reach double digits, but he could still be a overlay compared to his odds on Derby Day.

Atswhatimtalknabout is another horse who could wind up with better odds in the Future Wager than you can find in Las Vegas race books. He is running in the Santa Anita Derby. If he wins, he will obviously get pounded and be practically unbettable. If he runs a bad race, however, people may get off the bandwagon and let his odds drift up as they bet the "now" horses that will undoubtedly emerge this weekend.

Many horses have won the Derby after losing their last prep race, so be prepared to throw out a race (especially if you think a horse's chances were compromised).

That also goes for longer-priced horses who are running this weekend who could be even higher odds if they don't finish in the money. They could be huge overlays, if you can make an excuse for their poor finish and project them to improve on the first Saturday in May.

And don't forget the Oaks

This weekend also will be the first Kentucky Oaks Future Wager.

Avello has been the only bookmaker in town taking action on the Oaks. Avello said his biggest exposure is on the filly with the lowest odds, Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies champ Storm Flag Flying, who opened as the 4-1 morning line favorite in the KOFW. She's down to 2-1 at Park Place.

Fillies who may be higher than Avello's odds when the KOFW closes include Yell (8-1 in the KOFW morning line and down to 6-1 at Park Place) and Santa Catarina (10-1 in the KOFW, 7-1 at Park Place)

A potential value play at Park Place could be Elloluv, who was 10-1 as of Monday and is slated to open the KOFW at 5-1.