05/16/2005 11:00PM

Superfecta score! Well, almost


PHILADELPHIA - Every once in a great while, you can put yourself in position to make a big score. Once you've done that, you are in the hands of the racing gods.

When the leaders were closing on the quarter pole at the Kentucky Derby, the scenario I had envisioned was playing itself out. If it played out for another 30 seconds or so, I stood a chance at a score to remember.

The Derby, I had decided several days before the race, was a two-horse affair. Either Afleet Alex or Bellamy Road had to win. If Bellamy Road won, I could not imagine any horse but Afleet Alex running second. If Bellamy Road got sucked into a hot pace, I thought there was a chance he could finish out of the money.

So I fashioned my bets on the premise that Afleet Alex had a 75 percent chance to win and Bellamy Road a 25 percent chance.

Once I came to that conclusion, it was a question of how to bet my money. I kept coming back to the 2004 Derby superfecta payoff, $41,380.20.

It paid that much even with favored Smarty Jones and second-choice Lion Heart running one-two.

The key to the payoff was Limehouse, fourth at 41-1. I spent Derby week trying to find the 2005 version of Limehouse.

As all of my friends will tell you, I decided Giacomo was this year's Limehouse. Giacomo was going to be my key superfecta horse. I kept repeating the refrain, "Remember the Giacomo."

Did I think Giacomo could win? No. He just looked like the kind of plodder that could pass a bunch of dead horses in the stretch and finish third or fourth, perhaps second if everything went right.

I thought the pace would be quick and contested. I did not think it would be that quick and that contested.

I bet what was essentially an exacta box of Afleet Alex and Bellamy Road with Giacomo third and fourth with everything, hoping for a Smarty Jones-like super payoff.

I also boxed eight horses (for second, third, and fourth) behind Afleet Alex. Then, I used Afleet Alex on top with Giacomo second, third, and fourth with 10 horses.

I did more agonizing over those 10 horses than anything else. After tossing the obvious, no-chance speed horses (Going Wild, Spanish Chestnut), I went searching for any horses that I thought would still be running at the finish. If it was close, I tossed speed horses and went with horses that could pass. If it was still close, I went with price. If I was between a potential 15-1 and 50-1, I went with the 50-1, hoping for a mega-payoff that could come with Afleet Alex on top; Giacomo second, third, or fourth; and a bomber or two in the other two spots.

The last horse I included in my 10 was Closing Argument. He got in on price.

The last bet I made was a cold exacta of Afleet Alex over Giacomo, just in case they ran one-two and I missed on the other horses. When I looked at the board just before post time, the 12-10 exacta was paying $1,800. I did not have it for $2.

As the horses hit the backstretch, I could not have asked for much more. They were flying up front. And there were a half-dozen horses up there battling it out. I had thrown out most of them, including High Limit. I knew instinctively the race was going to fall apart.

Yes, it was the Derby, but the same fundamentals apply to the Derby as apply to any other race. Unless Bellamy Road was Seattle Slew, he wasn't going to last. And neither were any of the other horses vying for the lead.

Early on, I had picked up Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose wearing those green silks. They were moving from midpack heading into the far turn. I glanced to the back, searching for the other green silks, worn by Giacomo's jockey, Mike Smith. They were moving quite nicely.

Anybody who has ever made a bet knows that feeling. What you imagined could happen was now happening. You were in position to cash. Only this wasn't any position. This was a position for a major score.

At the quarter pole, Afleet Alex appeared to be in position to seize the lead. Giacomo was moving fast enough that it looked like he had a great chance to hit the board. I scanned the field looking for some of my other numbers, but it was far too chaotic to see clearly.

Like Rose and Churchill Downs announcer Luke Kruytbosch, I did not identify Closing Argument, who moved in company with Afleet Alex around the turn. A few hours after the race, Rose said he thought Closing Argument was actually Noble Causeway. Kruytbosch did not pick up Closing Argument until the final sixteenth.

What I did identify was that Afleet Alex was having serious trouble getting by whatever horse was wearing those blue silks. I glanced back for Giacomo and saw Smith wheel him outside that wall of horses. It was obvious he was going to hit the board.

I looked back at Afleet Alex, hoping somehow he was finding some renewed energy near the rail. The illusion from the front often favors the rail horse, but I knew better than to fall for an illusion. What it looked like was not what it was.

With 50 yards to go, it was obvious Afleet Alex was not going to win. With that, Giacomo went by Closing Argument. When everybody else was scrambling to see which horse just won the Derby, I knew. I also knew how close I had been to a big score when I realized exactly which horses had finished second and fourth. Like Closing Argument, Don't Get Mad was one of the final horses in my group of 10. I had very good inspiration. And I collected absolutely nothing.

A super of 10-18-12-17 was going to have to pay all the money. Or nearly all of it. I was wondering what a 12-10-18-17 might have paid. It turned out the actual number was $864,253.50 for $1. The other number? Who knows? But it had to be six figures and then some.

Later, I went over some "what ifs." As in, what if I had played some trifectas, which, by the way, paid $66,567.40 for $1? What if I had used some boxes?

And then I moved on. In reality, I was fortunate to get that close. All the close choices went my way. Just about everything went right - until the end. I gave myself a chance.