02/03/2005 12:00AM

Singling Sweet Lips keys $400,000 pick five

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is customary after any super-sized payoff for bettors to ask themselves a familiar question: "Could I have had it?"

Though the honest answer usually is no, hindsight is a shrewd ally for horseplayers who want to believe otherwise. With a lucky break here or a different selection there, things might have turned out as well as they did for one fortunate California horseplayer last Saturday.

At a cozy satellite wagering facility in Santa Maria, 50 miles up the California coast from Santa Barbara, the bettor wagered on the season's first Magna Pick 5 and walked away with the largest payoff in the short history of the bet - a cool $406,985.80 minus taxes.

Maybe the anonymous bettor just got lucky. How else do you come up with a $142.20 upsetter like Musique Toujours, the wire-to-wire winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic? But as is usually the case, there was more to the winning bettor's jackpot score than sheer, blind luck.

In fact, the bettor combined elements beyond basic handicapping. Included was a willingness to make a sizeable investment - the winning play was a combination ticket purchased for $240. Secondly, the bettor employed creative handicapping. In all five legs of the wager, the bettor included at least one horse that started at 8-1 or higher.

Even while using creativity, the bettor was able to straddle the line between recklessness and caution. In four of the five races, the bettor included the favorite. If the description of the winning ticket sounds familiar, it should. It is how most bettors structure exotic wagers - by spreading out with logical contenders, sprinkling in a few marginal price horses, then commencing prayer.

But there is a distinction between playing the same as everyone else, and playing to win. If often requires standing alone in situations where few others dare. It can mean formulating an opinion that differs from the crowd, and sticking to it. Maybe the winning player in last Saturday's Magna Pick 5 was lucky, but the play also was compelling in its courage.

That is because in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, a race considered one of the most wide open in the sequence, the bettor used just one horse. Sweet Lips was listed at 12-1 on the program, the ideal price for a bettor to separate himself from the crowd. The winning player singled Sweet Lips, an outsider that most other bettors would pick up only by spreading the race.

Sweet Lips won the Distaff by 1 1/2 lengths at $27.60, and though her win marked only the halfway point of the pick five, she proved to be the "separator." The bettor had three horses in the next leg, five in the finale, and a piece of parimutuel history.

It was not easy to get there. Three of the five won by a neck; the bettor did not have the runner-up in any of the three. Here is a race-by-race rundown.

Laurel, race 10: The bettor went four-deep in a 10-horse field that Silmaril ($3.60) won by a neck. The bettor used three others, who finished fourth through sixth - Pour It On, Star of Anziyan, and Princess Pelona.

Gulfstream Park, race 9: The bettor went two-deep, using 6-5 favorite Moscow Burning, who finished fifth, and Valentine Dancer ($19), who won by a neck. The winner was the fourth betting choice in the 12-horse field.

Santa Anita, race 6: Sweet Lips ($27.60) was the fifth betting choice in the 10-horse field, and she also was the single. She won by 1 1/2 lengths, while odds-on Yearly Report struggled home sixth and was later retired.

Golden Gate, race 6: The bettor went three deep in the eight-horse field, using second-choice Time to Be on Top ($9.80), odds-on Keystone Malibu, and Wild Toy. Time to Be on Top led gate to wire and drew away from the favorite late to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

Gulfstream, race 10: The bettor went five deep in the 12-runner field and included the second-highest price - Musique Toujours, who won by a neck at 70-1. The bettor's four others were third-place Classic Endeavor, seventh- place Lava Man, ninth-place Midas Eyes, the 2-1 favorite, and 12th place Cozy Guy.

The winning ticket: 2, 4, 8, 9/3, 9/9/4, 7, 8/1, 3, 6, 7, 11.

That is 120 combinations at $2 each, for a cost of $240. The bettor signed for the winning ticket Sunday at Santa Maria. After more than $100,000 in taxes were taken out, the bettor walked away with net winnings of more than $300,000.

The Magna Pick 5 - a $2 bet linking five races at Magna tracks and run in about an hour - was launched last winter for a 12-week span, and is back for another run through spring. The bet, which is taxed at a takeout rate of 22 percent, includes a carryover provision that has never kicked in.

When no one picks all five winners, 75 percent of the net pool will carry over to the following Saturday while 25 percent will be returned as consolation payoffs to the tickets with the most winners.

While the Magna Pick 5 is not expected to frequently pay as much it did this weekend, plenty of bettors will be asking a familiar question afterward. That is, "Could I have had it?"

And the answer is, only if you play.