05/20/2004 12:00AM

Smarty fans, cover your ears


NEW YORK - There is a very good chance that Smarty Jones will win the Belmont Stakes and become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. He is a terrific racehorse, he is getting better with every start, he has been flawlessly handled, his Preakness was an outstanding performance, and there's no rival on the horizon who appears capable of beating him if he runs that race again.

None of which means that you're obligated to bet on him June 5, or that you are an evildoer or dimwit if you choose to play against him.

All the gloaters marveling at their psychic powers for picking a 3-5 shot in Baltimore last Saturday are reminded that an 8-year-old could have looked at the Preakness past performances and smoked out Smarty Jones as the most likely winner. Parimutuel betting does not reward those who identify the obvious winner. It rewards those who bet on horses whose payoffs exceed their actual chances of winning.

Even the most rabid Philadelphian would concede that there is a price at which he would not bet on Smarty Jones in the Belmont. If you had to put up $10,000 to win a penny, you would of course bet the other way and take a million to one that he'd lose. So now that we've established your flexibility, we're really only negotiating over your price.

The real question is not whether Smarty Jones is a wonderful horse, which of course he is, and not whether he is a more likely winner than any of his opponents, which of course he is, but whether he is as likely to win as his probable Belmont odds of 2-5 - a bet that you have to win three times out of four just to keep your head above water.

What we have here is eight in a row versus nine in a row: eight straight victories by Smarty Jones against the legacy of nine consecutive Derby-Preakness winners losing the Belmont Stakes, all of them at short prices. Even if you think Smarty is better than most of them and that his competition is lighter than what those nine faced, can you really say with confidence that something that has failed nine times in a row now has a 75-percent chance of happening?

The one sure thing about Belmont day is that the betting pools will be inefficient. There may not be much juice in the mutuels on a rainy Thursday at Aqueduct when only calculating lifers are playing against each other. But most of the 125,000 citizens expected to attend the Belmont will simply be betting on names, numbers, colors, hunches, and Smarty Jones without a thought of price or true odds. Afternoons such as these can pay for many a rainy Thursday, and those who have bet against the Derby-Preakness winners of recent years have done so well that they could now bet against a decade of short-priced Triple Crown winners and still be ahead of the Belmont Stakes for life.

Betting against Smarty Jones is neither disrespectful nor any sort of implied criticism of the horse. Strange things happen in the Belmont and even great horses lose, starting with the first in the current streak of nine failed bids, Spectacular Bid himself.

Smarty's oversubscribed bandwagon would have you think you're stupid, vain, or spiteful for even suggesting it is possible he could lose this race. Don't be intimidated by them, and don't be shamed into thinking it's your duty as a racing fan to observe some imaginary Patriot Act and root for the favorite. The annual chorus of misinformation has already begun and will surely swell to a deafening volume by Belmont Day, that (all together now) racing desperately needs Smarty Jones to win the Triple Crown to save an ailing sport.

There is no evidence that the successful Triple Crowns of the 1970's did anything to increase racing's long-term prominence or popularity or that a headline-grabbing horse solves a single problem in the game. Whether or not Smarty Jones wins the Belmont, you'll get 125,000 people out for next year's Belmont if the Derby winner wins the Preakness. The compelling story is a horse going for the Triple Crown, a wonderfully rare achievement that would be thrilling to see, but might also be worth betting against.