10/24/2001 11:00PM

Taking aim with an affordable six-shooter

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Horseplayers annually relish the challenge of betting the Breeders' Cup pick six, but the wager has often been a little too challenging. In past years, a ticket covering most of the contenders, including the enigmatic foreign entrants, could cost tens of thousands of dollars. The difficulty of making a reasonable play is usually confirmed by the results: Two years ago the winning combination paid more than $3 million.

I may be eating these words at Belmont Park on Saturday afternoon, but playing the 2001 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships looks like a manageable proposition. I can fashion a reasonable pick six ticket for as little as $648. Moreover, two individual races, the Sprint and the Classic, look like excellent betting propositions.

The eight-race program begins with the two races not included in the pick six, the Distaff and the Juvenile Fillies. In the Distaff, the favorite, Flute, is easily beatable; Exogenous and Spain ran better races than she did in the recent Beldame Stakes at Belmont, and they can run one-two here. The Juvenile Fillies is a two-horse race between You and Bella Bellucci, with You having an edge because of her seasoning. But these races are mere appetizers before the pick six.

Mile: This turf event produced a four-horse photo finish last year, and Saturday's race looks just as evenly matched. It is by far the toughest race on the card; if there were two races so wide open in the pick six, the wager would be virtually unplayable.

The top European in the field, Noverre, is no superstar. Neither is the well-regarded Californian, Val Royal, who who benefited from a perfect trip when he won his last start. I give a slight edge to the Canadian colt, Numerous Times, who is 12-1 in the morning line despite his perfect 6-for-6 record. He was gutsy and visually impressive winning his last start at Woodbine. But this is a race where pick six player should use every possible contender, and I'll use at least six of them.

Sprint: The six-furlong race is extraordinarily deep in talent. Xtra Heat, the Maryland filly who has won 17 of 20 starts, is a sensational speedster. So, too, is Caller One, who has had the early lead in every race of his life. There are several other fast, one-dimensional front-runners in this field, too, and they seem almost certain to negate each other, setting a suicidal pace that sets up the Sprint for a stretch-runner.

There are two colts who seem especially well suited to the Sprint, and the better of them is Swept Overboard. Jockey Eddie Delahoussaye discovered how this horse prefers to run when he dropped to last place, then unleashed a big, late move and blew past Kona Gold (the Sprint winner in 2000) to win a stakes at Santa Anita last month. He will never have a better opportunity to use his newfound style than he will on Belmont's sweeping turns with a bunch of enervated speed horses in front of him.

The other formidable off-the-pace runner is El Corredor, who has competing in mile races lately but is best at shorter distances. He beat Swept Overboard in a fast sprint at Del Mar in the summer. I will bet enthusiastically on an exacta combining the two stretch-runners, and use only the two of them in the pick six. You've got to take a stand somewhere.

Filly and Mare Turf: Lailani won six straight races in Europe this year, then came to the United States and captured the Flower Bowl Stakes at Belmont. She is the logical favorite, but foreign horses often regress in their second U.S. starts (the "Euro-bounce") and Lailani hasn't been training particularly well at Belmont. Either of the rivals who finished close to her in the Flower Bowl - England's Legend and Starine - could turn the tables. Nobody else in the field appears in their class.

Juvenile: The sensational undefeated 2-year-old Officer is the standout favorite in this race and the probable winner. But he does have two formidable rivals who are also unbeaten: the European invader Johannesburg and the California speedster Came Home (who has earned speed figures better than Officer.) If the biggest favorite on the card should lose, the pick six is certain to be lucrative, so I will include all three contenders on my ticket.

Turf: Fantastic Light had a brilliant campaign in Europe, but there are two caveats about him: He didn't look like a world-beater when he ran in the U. S. last fall, and he has lost his last seven starts at the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Turf. Accordingly, I don't want to stand alone with him in the pick six, and so I will include the best American, With Anticipation, and the late-running European sleeper, Milan, in my pick six.

Classic: Aptitude won the Jockey Club Gold Cup three weeks ago by 10 lengths, and if he approximates that performance, he will win the day's main event. He is being challenged by two brilliant Europeans, Galileo and Sakhee, but neither has ever run on dirt and neither is bred to do so. I'll throw them out completely and play Aptitude in exactas with two solid, if unglamorous, U.S. runners, Include and Guided Tour, both listed at 15-1. Aptitude ought to deliver a smashing performance, providing a dramatic climax to the day's events - and a logical climax to the pick six.