02/10/2005 12:00AM

Timing is the key to futures betting

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Kentucky Derby futures have been available at various outposts here since before the Breeders' Cup last October, and it seems another race book posts its odds every week.

The truly sharp bettors - or those with connections at the barns of the top horses - are usually the only ones who can get odds of 150-1 or 200-1 on the top Derby prospects before they become known to the general public.

I tried to play that game in the mid-1990's, but what I found is that after betting an average of five colts a year at odds of around 100-1, I'd be lucky to get even one to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. More often than not, figuring that I was only getting roughly 20-1 on my original investment, I could have gotten just as good a price if I had waited for Derby Day and was assured the horse would start.

So it's probably best to leave the high-end futures betting to the professionals. What I've found from other amateur horseplayers here in Vegas, however, is that they really get involved with the Derby futures when the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools start, the first of which is this weekend. Because there are so many different options around town, small bettors can shop around and compare their prices at a time when the Derby picture is coming more into focus. Not that there isn't a risk that a promising 3-year-old at this time of year can get derailed from the Derby trail - just ask those who pounded Fusaichi Samurai from 225-1 down to 7-1 at Bally's and was as low as 11-2 at the Palms right before he was declared from the race.

While the future-book odds in Vegas are fixed - meaning you'll get the price at which you bet a horse no matter how much people bet after you - the Churchill bet is parimutuel. The nature of those pools is that if a 3-year-old in the pool runs well in a stakes race, his odds will plummet by the close of the pools on Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern.

Local horseplayers, though, have the ability to play the market to its fullest. If one feels a horse is primed to run a big race Saturday in the Risen Star or Sunday in the San Vicente at Santa Anita, then a bet can be made at fixed odds before the running of the race to maximize the price, because a win will definitely cause the horse's odds to drop in the fixed-odds futures as well as the parimutuel pool. Of course, if you're wrong, you have an underlay, since the horse's odds will likely rise in the fixed-odds futures and not be bet in the pari-mutuel futures. That's why it's called gambling.

John Avello, the director of race and sports at Bally's and Paris who runs the future book for the Caesars Entertainment casinos, said he basically agrees with the morning-line odds in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Of course, they're pretty close to the current odds on his list.

With Fusaichi Samurai out, Avello said a lot of future bettors have turned to Rockport Harbor, who has the same jockey and trainer, Stewart Elliott and John Servis, as last year's Derby winner, Smarty Jones.

"The last couple of years, these horses that are highly touted have done well," Avello said. "Lightning in a bottle could strike two years in a row. He's shown a lot of speed. We took most of the money on him at higher prices and not as much since we dropped him."

Rockport Harbor is down to 7-1 at Bally's. Avello said, however, that even though the top contenders have looked great, he is not totally sold on their credentials.

"What I've noticed about horses that have run this year is they've gone against short fields, and it's easy to avoid trouble in those cases," Avello said. "In the Derby, you're not going to have that luxury. You have to have tactical speed and also have a late kick. It's not easy to gauge who is going to be able to pull that off if they don't face obstacles in the prep races."

Of Derby hopefuls running this weekend, Galloping Grocer, the favorite in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct, opened at 30-1 in the Churchill bet and has already been bet down to 10-1 at the Palms. Roman Ruler and Consolidator run in Sunday's San Vicente. Both are 15-1 at Bally's and the Palms and opened at 12-1 in the Churchill bet.

Sweet Catomine, the champion 2-year-old filly who ran faster than the boys on Breeders' Cup Day, is 22-1 at the Palms and 25-1 at the Bally's, and opened at 20-1 in the Churchill bet.

She is also the 4-1 opening-line favorite in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager pool this weekend. No race books in Vegas have futures up yet on the Oaks. Avello, who was actually on vacation this past week, said he would have his up in the next week or two.

The advice for bettors who think Sweet Catomine will continue to progress and take on the boys in the Derby: Get the higher odds on the other top contenders (Balletto, Pussycat Doll, Runway Model, Sis City, and Splendid Blended) now because their odds will plummet if Sweet Catomine doesn't run in the Oaks.

Correction on Reno tourney

Friday's preview of the Reno Hilton's Winter Challenge Handicapping Tournament, which is being held this Saturday and Sunday, stated that multi-race wagers were not allowed in the live-money contest.

In fact, Don Bourcier, assistant race and sports book manager at the Reno Hilton, advises that the software has been upgraded this year and will accept contest plays on all pari-mutuel wagers, including superfectas, daily doubles, pick threes, pick fours, and place pick-alls.

Bourcier also said that players can use any race offered at the Reno Hilton as long as it is run before the last Thoroughbred race from California. No night tracks are being used.