09/01/2004 11:00PM

Seemingly beaten bettor gets up late


ARCADIA, Calif. - The lasting impression of the 2004 summer racing season may reflect one of the oldest maxims in sports - it is never over until it's over.

But it was a big problem for one Del Mar horseplayer, whose meet could not be over soon enough. A series of tough beats was interspersed with a string of mistaken analyses. It hardly makes for a winning combination, and on Aug. 28, even with nine days remaining in the 43-day meet, the bettor had all but thrown in the towel.

The surrender was premature, and fashionable. In racing, hasty decisions usually are. When Smarty Jones retired Aug. 2, some Eclipse Award voters could not rush fast enough to ink his name as champion 3-year-old. A little horse named Birdstone is reminding everyone that the racing year covers more than just the first seven months.

And for the bettor playing through a summer at Del Mar, 2004 will be a reminder that a commitment to playing an entire season should mean just that - a commitment to playing an entire season. Not just play until one has had his fill of bad luck.

The bettor's identity is irrelevant, because his tale is every bettor's woe. Most lifelong horseplayers have suffered some form of extended parimutuel torture, even when a meet begins on a winning note. The second day of the season, this particular bettor pulled the trigger on $26.40 Noble Kinsman, whose two-length win over a vulnerable favorite in a low-level claimer was the cause for much self-congratulation. The anguish began exactly one day later on July 23.

In race 8 on turf, the handicapper rightfully figured a fast pace would flatter the closers, and he hammered a one-way exacta. How clever. The favorite, Domingo Juan, hit the front in deep stretch and it was only a matter of 15-1 Monsieur Boulanger getting up for second. It did not happen. His exacta ran one-three, split by Cappucino Kid.

The defeat set the tone, and soon the anguish arrived in waves.

Smarty Jones retired in early August. His owners took the money and ran. Most people would have done the same thing. The colt's achievements were recounted, but it was too soon to declare Smarty Jones the 3-year-old champion. Not with four months of racing left before the Breeders' Cup.

While the sport fussed over Smarty Jones, the Del Mar bettor faced the immediate task of halting the parimutuel freefall. On Aug. 8, the bettor wagered on second-time starter Eleventh Street in a maiden race for 2-year-old fillies. Odds-on favorite Bella Banissa had finished second in two gut-wrenching stakes, and was dropping in here. It was too late. Her ambitious campaign had taken a toll; she finished next to last.

Meanwhile, 11-1 shot Eleventh Street looked home free, as jockey Jon Court kept busy with the right-hand whip. But there are a million nuances in racing, and they usually work against you when you're going bad. Court's right-hand whip intimidated a rival rallying outside. Then Court switched to the left hand, which cleared the way for her rival, who surged past late. Eleventh Street finished seven clear of third. But she lost.

It got worse. The following weekend on Aug. 14, the bettor wagered on Powerscourt in the Arlington Million. He finished first and was disqualified. The bettor smoked out 18-1 firster Best Friend Gracie in race 6 at Del Mar. She made the lead in deep stretch, at which point jockey David Flores began easing up nearing the wire. He didn't see the winner coming. By the time Flores realized the mistake and started riding again, it was too late. Best Friend Gracie finished second. Four races later, the bettor's Ulterior Motives became perhaps the only Jeff Mullins trainee in history to blow a two-length lead in midstretch. Second again.

On Aug. 19, the horseplayer had seven of eight in the place pick all. The one loss was that turf race during which track laborers were still on the course when the field entered the final turn. Every horse was interfered with; none more so than Risky Weather. He steadied, lost momentum going around the people, and fell a head short of catching the even-money favorite. Instead of a $1,000 windfall, the bettor got back zero. Finally, on Aug. 20, first-time gelding Turn the Kee lost by a head in race 8. The bettor's pick three would have paid $1,702.

It was enough torture for one summer. Up went the white flag - a losing season at Del Mar. Not the first, probably not the last. Any wagers the rest of the meet would be strictly for the sake of action.

Then came Aug. 28, and Birdstone upset the Travers. Turns out all those Eclipse voters were prematurely naming Smarty Jones the champ. If Birdstone wins the BC Classic, he deserves the championship.

An hour later, at Del Mar, the slumping bettor was perusing the selections of local newspaper handicapper Larry Weinbaum and saw he picked Home Ice, a 33-1 outsider to win race 6. His reasons were sound - good works, good barn, good breeding.

With nothing to lose but a $20 bill, the bettor wagered on Home Ice. This time, David Flores delivered a perfect ride. He stayed inside, saved ground, angled out, and wore down the favorite in deep stretch. Home Ice paid $69.60 for $2.

Sometimes it only takes one good hit to right the ship. Two days later, race 6 longshot Jennifers Dance finished second behind the even-money favorite in an exacta that returned $23.20 for $1. The bettor had it more than once.

All the karma balanced out in the last race on Wednesday. The slumping bettor had been chasing 13-start maiden Yodelin Two all meet. He was making his fourth start of the season, in a bad maiden-claimer (are there any other kind?). Yodelin Two and 3-2 favorite A.P. Carson were the only horses in the field that appeared to be breathing.

The bettor keyed Yodelin Two and A.P. Carson to hit the board, punched the "all" button in the other slots, and invested a total of $28 in the trifecta. Yodelin Two, a 7-1 outsider trained by one of the best longshot trainers in California (Mike Harrington), hit the front in deep stretch. A.P. Carson faded to third, and a 51-1 bomber clunked up for second. The $1 trifecta returned $2,436.

And it proved once again that for a racetrack gambler, it is never over until it is over.