12/31/2003 12:00AM

Stumbling into some easy money


PHILADELPHIA - After poring over the Philadelphia Park past performances for hours (okay minutes) Monday morning, it was just a bit disconcerting when it was five minutes to post for the first race and there were no riders in the paddock. The horses just kept going round and round, but no jockeys.

Did they get lost on their long trek down the stairs from the jocks' room? Did they get called up to serve in the armed forces and word had not gotten to Bensalem, Pa., yet? What was up?

I liked an exacta. And the double.

Turned out the riders were unhappy that what used to take a few days was now taking a week. If it were, say, about something abstract, there likely would not have been a problem. It was, however, about their pay. So, to show management they were, in the words of jockey Tony Black, "mad as hell and not going to take it any more,'' the jockeys chose not to ride.

I chose to look at Hawthorne, and was quickly confronted with this scenario in the first race, a $15,000 maiden claimer for 2-year-olds going a mile and 70 yards.

Five of the six horses had no speed and no apparent talent. Which left Storm'n Z. Who cared that he had been beaten more than 88 lengths in his first four starts, that he was 9-1, 43-1, 25-1, and 107-1? In this spot, he was Seattle Slew.

Storm'n Z had hit the front in his fifth start. He had finished a solid second, beaten by just two lengths, and gotten a 52 Beyer at 26-1. The other five horses had only gotten into the 40's once among them.

Storm'n Z was lone speed. He had the best Beyer by a ton. He was also no secret at 3-5.

Which is why they invented exactas.

All but one of the other horses in the race had come out of the dazzling maiden race that featured Storm'n Z. The public saw only Carrot Juice. He finished third, five lengths behind Storm'n Z in that unforgettable maiden race.

Chip the Vault was 11 lengths back in fifth. Redford was 12 lengths behind Storm'n Z in seventh. Bravo Brad was 14 lengths back in eighth.

Ballroom Blitz was dropping from $25,000 to $15,000, but had never been close in two starts. His two Beyers were 34, 31.

The exacta board, in my opinion, went tilt. It forced the bet.

It read Storm'n Z-Redford ($38), Storm'n Z-Ballroom Blitz ($25), Storm'n Z-Carrot Juice ($7), Storm'n Z-Bravo Brad ($41), and Storm'n Z-Chip the Vault ($38).

All the money was showing on the 3-4 exacta. It was, in the late Pete Axthelm's wonderful phrase, "MOTO" (Master of the Obvious). I thought it was absurd.

Yes, Carrot Juice was the most likely second-place finisher. Was he this likely? I didn't think so and was willing to take a stand against him because the other prices were so huge.

The bet was simple. Do you take 5-2 on the proposition that Carrot Juice, a deep closer with one in-the-money finish, is going to fire again and finish second? Or do you use the other four horses on the theory that, if any of them gets up for second, you will, at least, double your money.

I tossed the MOTO exacta. I took $100 and bet three $20 exactas and a $40 exacta with Bravo Brad. Why double up on Bravo Brad? They all looked the same to me and that combination paid the most.

Storm'n Z cruised to the front, led by seven lengths midway through the race and won by two lengths. I had little interest in that part. I was watching the battle between Carrot Juice and Chip the Vault for second. And when Chip the Vault surged into a clear second, it was one of the great racing moments of 2003.

The 3-6 exacta popped up at $35.40 and my $100 became $354. All that for beating the immortal Carrot Juice. Is this a great game or what?