01/23/2004 12:00AM

Skullbusters fun - but not in pick six

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LAS VEGAS - There are tough races, where a horseplayer has trouble finding value or choosing between a couple of closely matched contenders. There are really tough races, where half the field looks fully capable of winning and you're not entirely sure you ended up with the correct half.

And then there are skullbusters - races that can drive a handicapper to drink, preferably something including a jigger of arsenic. These are the races that made three men very happy this weekend at the National Handicapping Championship here in Las Vegas.

The names of these professional sadists are John Avello, the racebook manager at Bally's; Jeff Sotman, the tournament director; and Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. It was their job for the last two mornings to study the past performances for eight tracks in hopes of finding a skullbuster at each, which they then designated as one of each day's mandatory tournament races. The 260 contestants had to make a win-place selection in each of the eight skullbusters, and then could chose seven other races from among the 80 or so being run around the country that day for a total of 15 daily selections.

It might seem unfair for more than half of a tournament's races to be deliberately selected for their degree of difficulty, but what fun would it be for everyone to play five-horse fields with two obvious stickouts? If you wanted to be named the handicapper of the year, you had to negotiate maiden claimers at Aqueduct, turf sprinters at Fair Grounds, optional claimers at Santa Anita, and restricted claimers at Golden Gate and Turf Paradise.

Skullbusters are all good fun at a tournament where everyone's happy to be there, has already won a free trip to Las Vegas, and is getting a free shot at $100,000. They're a little more annoying when racing offices load up pick six carryovers with the toughest races and biggest fields they have attracted on a given card. California routinely does this when a Sunday card carries over to Wednesday and there's time to tailor the order of races to the pick six.

It was disappointing to see Aqueduct do the same a week ago, excluding the manageable Aqueduct Handicap from a $2.6 million pick six pool in favor of more bottom-level claimers. It was jarring to see a New York track running its best race of the day as the fourth of 10; at least when California does it, Easterners and Midwesterners get to see an extra stakes race before nightfall.

More important, this kind of racecard rearrangement stems from a couple of faulty beliefs: that pick six players want six impossible races to handicap because the payoff is likely to be larger, and that this is somehow good for the track as well. In fact, players are not only willing, but also eager, to find a couple of anchor races on the card where they can go only one or two deep with some confidence and spend their money spreading in a few spots, not every race.

For tracks, repeated carryovers culminating in seven-digit payoffs may seem like dollars from heaven, but this is a short-sighted view. It was ultimately in Aqueduct's better long-term interest for the big carryover to have ended with a thousand winners at $2,100 each, or even a hundred winners at $21,000 each, rather than the actual result of two winners at $1.1 million each. More players would have received positive reinforcement and continued to chase the bet, and a lot more of the jackpot would have made repeated trips back through the windows. (In my case, it was moot as I found virtually every winner inscrutable. An extra winner would have only raised my batting average for the day to .500.)

Skullbusters are a lot more fun if the pressure's off, as it was for me captaining a team playing only for ego and charity at the NHC. I have never had occasion to study restricted claimers at Golden Gate before, and Friday's seventh race there, for $3,200 steeds who had not won twice in 2003-04, was an unexpected trip through some old memories and the vagaries of racing.

The race favorite was a gelding named Mr. Will, much of his appeal being that he had made only seven career starts, but he could have gotten an earful about the game from some of his seven opponents. They included Tasty Chardoneigh, a hard-hitting sprinter who raced against some serious 2-year-olds at Saratoga three summers ago; Butler on Duty, a 10-year-old chestnut bred and raced by Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, who once made two trips to the $175,000 Cal Cup Turf Mile; Driven Force, who once ran in stakes in Florida and California; and even a Phipps family homebred named My Secret Brush, who routinely walks out of the gate and passes a few when the race is over. He has clunked up for third at 76-1, 31-1 and 47-1 in his best efforts over the last year.

The tournament players were cursing the three skullbuster-hunters for forcing them to choose from such a gallery of rogues, but the curses were good-natured. Had they been betting their own money into a $2 million pick six pool, they wouldn't have been smiling as their skulls neared the busting point.