04/04/2002 12:00AM

A stroke of genius. Or is that folly?


ARCADIA, Calif. - At times during a win streak, you shake your head and wonder what in the world other bettors are looking at. Most of them are losing; you are a genius with an expanding bankroll.

Confidence is shattered, of course, by the inescapable losing streak and accompanying self-doubt. You wonder why you cannot see what other bettors can see. Most of them are winning; you are a fool. Your bankroll shrinks.

Finally, there is the dreaded middle ground. You do not win. You do not lose much. Inconsequential bets are cashed; payoffs are low. Your handicapping is vanilla, and every horse you love is 6-5. The takeout churn eats at your bankroll until Santa Anita Derby Day arrives and, finally, you have an opinion.

You are unsure if you are a genius or a fool. You are confident it will be one or the other. Thank goodness. If you are going down, you might as well go down in flames. You analyze the Santa Anita Derby field and wonder: Is there a valid reason why race favorite Came Home should win? The answer is no.

Now, people are laughing. Let them. Came Home is a star. He has been since his romping debut last June. This is a well-known fact. Came Home's brilliant 2-year-old form carried into his 3-year-old campaign, and runaway wins in the seven-furlong San Vicente and one-mile San Rafael increased his record to 5 for 6. Came Home, top class, is not a horse one typically would consider vulnerable.

However, there is nothing typical about 3-year-old races in spring, when distances lengthen. Top sprinters frequently carry their speed a mile, but the Santa Anita Derby distance of 1 1/8 miles brings new hurdles. There is a misperception Came Home's victory in the one-mile San Rafael establishes his efficacy around two turns. You know better.

Came Home's three-length San Rafael victory was soft, accomplished under ideal circumstances - pressing a slow pace (47.47 half, 1:11.50 three-quarters) and sprinting home. It was not a genuine race. In fact, it was run like a grass race - slow early, fast late. Came Home simply did what he always does - sprint home. His ability to sprint was never in dispute. The question remains, can Came Home route? You suspect he cannot. You are uncertain, however. Like everyone.

Came Home will be favored Saturday because he has won around two turns and has won several sprints. You say, so what? Pace expert Tom Brohamer notes that the pace figure earned by Came Home in the San Rafael fits with $25,000 claimers. Until Came Home proves he can sustain his speed against legitimate fractions in a two-turn race, it makes no sense to back him at low odds going nine furlongs.

You have denounced the Santa Anita Derby favorite and hope he points for the Met Mile, a one-turn race he is well qualified to win. Further, the Santa Anita Derby field includes Mayakovsky, who might be a freak. The obstacle facing Mayakovsky is similar to the one facing Came Home - the final furlong.

Mayakovsky and Came Home seem similar, but their strategies will differ Saturday. You visualize how the Santa Anita Derby will unfold. Chris McCarron will rate Came Home. Pat Valenzuela and Mayakovsky will rip to the lead. The swift fractions will prove Came Home's undoing. The fractions may compromise Mayakovsky, too. Or, they may not.

There is a misconception that fast fractions always flatter late-runners. It is not always true. Mayakovsky enters the Santa Anita Derby with a double-edged sword. Challenge him early, and die from the battle. Leave him alone on the lead, and he may be gone. Mayakovsky was not originally intended for the Santa Anita Derby, but he came out of his Gotham win in such good shape that his second start of the year was pushed up a week. It's a good sign.

If Mayakovsky loses the Santa Anita Derby, it will be on his terms. A stone front-runner, he will lead the field into the stretch, and if he has run his rivals into the ground as you expect, the race may be over at the head of the lane. But you cannot call yourself a horseplaying genius by simply cashing a win bet on the second choice.

To win your Santa Anita Derby wager, you must swing for the fences. You love Mayakovsky, and have reasons to doubt Came Home. It's almost enough. Fortunately, another horse is qualified. U S S Tinosa is improving every start, has won at 1 1/8 miles, and comes off a runner-up finish in the best 3-year-old race of spring - the San Felipe won by Medaglia d'Oro.

In the Santa Anita Derby, U S S Tinosa can lay back and roll late. It will set him up for the Kentucky Derby, but it might not be enough for him to catch Mayakovsky. The Santa Anita Derby exacta is a cold one-way: Mayakovsky to U S S Tinosa.

You want more. Came Home is vulnerable, and if he runs out, the trifecta is a jackpot. You bet it, a $5 play: Mayakovsky to U S S Tinosa to the other five: Danthebluegrassman, Easy Grades, Lusty Latin, Jack's Silver, and Proud Citizen.

You enter the Santa Anita Derby with supreme confidence. After all, there are only two possible outcomes. You are either a genius, or a fool.