08/01/2002 12:00AM

Trust me, the pick four isn't easy to hit

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - If the first week at Saratoga was an omen, it seems there are an infinite number of bumps along the road to becoming the Pick Four King.

In fact, recent personal experience in the trenches suggests it's more like tiptoeing through a minefield. A day-by-day accounting brings to light a few of the ways to shoot yourself in the foot:

July 24: Wise-guyed myself onto thin ice right away by relegating Puzzlement to backup status, on the theory that you never key deep closers at short prices, especially when they are returning from injury-induced layoffs in allowance races and prepping for stakes down the road.

Of course, Puzzlement got up to overtake lone speed Wild Years, thereby whittling away half of my contenders in the wide-open second leg on the inner turf. Of course, Capsized at $20 was one of them, so my first pick four went under as well.

Not that I was close, but it's good to see the bet still offers tremendous value. After Freedom's Daughter ($6.90) and the haveable longshot Dixie Doree ($30.60) finished it off, the pick four returned $13,018, or nearly four times the parlay.

July 25: Things began swimmingly when keys Papua ($10.20) and Seba ($6.50) started it off, but I boneheadedly neglected to include Whywhywhy in the third leg. That's because he had inherited the lead in Belmont's Flash Stakes when the two favorites went down approaching the stretch, and the time had been unexceptional.

Whywhywhy was pinched back to last at the break, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the leaders dueled through 21.74- and 44.99-second splits. He improved on this day, as 2-year-olds are wont to do, and circled the field to win the Sanford going away.

Now that I didn't need Minni Sangue, she naturally won the nightcap at $16.40, and the first pick four I was supposed to have but didn't came back $1,946, beating the parlay of $1,603 by a few hundred bucks.

Why, why, why, indeed.

July 26: There is a valuable lesson to be learned from this pick four, which at $2,738 returned nearly twice the parlay for the combination of two favorites, a co-second choice from Mott and Bailey, and the hard-to-figure Briano, who got the ball rolling with a $58.50 upset on the grass.

The lesson is: Don't fall into the habit of going 2x2x3x3, or other similarly small tickets that use only the logical contenders in each leg.

Rarely is the sequence made up of all logical winners, and when it is the payoff is nothing to write home to Long Island about. Better to take a stand in one or two legs, because the races where you think you need to use six horses are the ones where you really need to punch the "all" button.

Briano looked like an "all" as the eighth choice in a field of 10, but it was an entry-level allowance for New York-breds after all, and this type of race frequently blows up multirace exotics. It's situations like this where the pick four routinely outshines the parlay by a mile. The key is developing an intuitive feel for when to use man's greatest invention - the wheel.

July 27: The first $500,000 guaranteed Saturday pick four included the Diana and the Test, and it's safe to say small fortunes were won and lost by the head-bobbing finishes. Of course, Jerry Bailey, Mr. Bobble Head himself, managed to have the noses of Tates Creek and You in the right place at just the right instant.

Voodoo Dancer, my key in the Diana, had the lead a stride before and a stride after the wire, but got zapped by the perfect-trip winner when it counted. Inexplicably, I did not put Tates Creek on backup tickets, even though she was the only entrant in the field (besides rank outsider Reina Blanca) Voodoo Dancer hadn't already beaten by open lengths.

Everything broke right the rest of the way, but they don't pay consos for three out of four. At least there was some consolation to be had when the winning payoff was posted at $643, which was $31 less than the parlay.

July 28: Technically a day off, but since I'm located only a few furlongs from the backstretch gate, why not take a nice walk over at about 3:30 and put in a few tickets?

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the dust had settled there was another lesson to be learned. When you designate "A" and "B" horses and construct pick-four plays accordingly, there are going to be times when you have all four winners . . . just not all on the same ticket.

Welcome to my world.

July 29: Nobody wants to go 0-for-the-week, so I toyed with upping the ante just a tad to attack what looked like a highly competitive sequence.

Yet another lesson: Even when you're filling out multiple tickets and using marginal contenders marginally, it's still easy to get a case of "sticker shock" when the final cost of the play is computed.

My first pass at the bloody thing was too large an investment, so I decided to whittle down one horse in the first leg and another in the last, those being - I swear - eventual winners Unbridled Vice at $19.40 and Give and Take at $17. Had I bit the bullet and bet the required amount, half of a $1,668 payoff, or nearly twice the parlay, would have been mine.

That's okay. There are still five guaranteed Saturday pools left. Now all I have to do is figure out who my Whitney key is - Street Cry, Lido Palace, Left Bank, or Macho Uno, the ghoulish gray horse who was recently discussed in this space as being the bane of my parimutuel existence.

Any ideas?