10/26/2006 11:00PM

Ultra Pick Six slightly less devilish


NEW YORK - When the Breeders' Cup announced the order of this year's eight races earlier this week, I took it as somewhere between a challenge and an engraved invitation: They really, really want someone to hit the Ultra Pick Six this year.

The one thing that even contrarians of every stripe can agree upon this year is that the two most demonically difficult races on the card are the Juvenile and the Juvenile Fillies. Twelve of the 14 colts have a career-best Beyer Speed Figure in the narrow band of 87 to 96, and only three of them have ever raced around two turns on the dirt. Half of the 14 fillies are coming out of a confusing race over Polytrack in the Alcibiades, and no one in the body of the race at the moment has a two-turn Beyer higher than 81, about 10 points below the winning par for the race.

The good news for Ultra Pick Six players is that neither 2-year-old event will be part of that wager. For only the second time since 1998 and only the third time since 1986, the juvenile events will be the first two Cup races of the day, as they were at Belmont last year. Whereas a year ago, they were put there in part because favorites Folklore and First Samurai might have made the pick six too "easy," this year they were left in that spot because of their very difficulty.

"It's time for someone to hit it again," said Ken Kirchner, Breeders' Cup Ltd.'s wagering guru. "It's been way too long."

In the last four Breeders' Cups, exactly one winning ticket was sold, not counting the four fake tickets the Drexel Mob punched in after four legs had been run in 2002. That year, Volponi ensured that there were no legitimate winners and when the smoke and crime-scene tape cleared, there were 78 consos worth $43,937.60 apiece.

In 2003, one Lotto-style winning ticket was sold to Graham Stone, a South Dakota jeweler who invested all of $8 to get back $2.68 million. His ticket of four singles and two doubles also contained three of the 48 consolations, which were each worth $18,663.

The last two Cups produced no winners. No one could put Singletary, Wilko, and Better Talk Now on the same ticket at Lone Star in 2004, leaving 61 winning consos at $56,149 apiece. Last year at Belmont, there were just 40 consos at $90,325. Even the Players' Pool syndicate, which invested $90,000, could only come up with four, leaving both Intercontinental and Silver Train out of a massive part-wheel that began 9x5.

While those consos have been as handsome as most 6-of-6 payouts on normal cards of racing, the whole proposition has become so daunting that many players seem to have abandoned making what they have come to consider an annual sacrificial donation.

The overall Breeders' Cup handle has soared from $67 million a decade ago to $112 million last year, much of that fueled by huge jumps in multirace wagers such as the pick three and pick four. The Ultra Pick Six, however, hit its peak at $6.4 million in 1998 and has declined sharply ever since, hitting a plateau in the $4.4 million to $4.6 million range in each of the last four years.

This year's pick six will consist, in order, of the Filly and Mare Turf, Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf, and Classic. It's still not exactly a walk in the park, but it's a lot more manageable than it would have been with either or both of the baby races in the sequence. Depending on the early results, it may all come down to the Classic and Bernardini, who figures to be the lowest-priced Classic favorite since Fusaichi Pegasus at 6-5 in 2000, if not since Cigar at 3-5 in 1996. Wise guys and smart alecks may try to beat him, but it's a safe bet that he'll be the most frequent single among the two million or so combinations sold. I'm leaning towards singling him on about 80 percent of my play.

Now for the bad news: Only seven Classic favorites have ever been 6-5 or less - the two mentioned above as well as Slew o'Gold at 3-5 in 1984, Ferdinand at even-money in 1987, Easy Goer at 1-2 in 1989, Bertrando at 6-5 in 1993, and Cigar at 7-10 in 1995. Ferdinand won, Cigar came through in 1995 but lost in 1996, and Slew o'Gold, Easy Goer, Bertrando, and Fusaichi Pegasus all lost, too. That's two out of seven. So even if you make it through the first five, how confident will you feel if you're singled to Bernardini for all the marbles?