05/30/2005 12:00AM

Unwitting victim of bad pick three rule

Despite going off at 1-2 odds, English Channel completed a $734 pick three on the Preakness undercard.

NEW YORK - When you handicap a racing card and one horse jumps off the page, you could always bet that horse to win. But unless the odds on that horse justify it, betting to win seems like a quaint idea that would have interested your grandfather.

In this age of exotic wagering options, you can build a multi-race play around that horse you really like. And if you are right, you can turn a 3-1 horse into a 10-1 shot or better.

This was the scenario I encountered on Preakness Day at Pimlico. In handicapping the card, I came across Albert E. in the fourth race, an optional claiming sprint. Albert E. had made his last four starts at Aqueduct in much tougher races. When he was fourth in his last start, he was steadied down the backstretch. Two starts back, he was a distant sixth, but was up against Uncle Camie, who came back in his next start to upset one of the best sprinters in the country, Don Six, in the Bold Ruler Handicap. Albert E. finished fourth three starts back, but caught a muddy track. Four starts back, he was beaten a nose, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 97 that was more than good enough to win this race. And five starts back, his last start in Maryland, Albert E. won a race identical to the one he was in on Preakness Day at odds of 4-5.

I felt even stronger about Albert E. after talking to Frank Carulli, the program handicapper and linemaker at the Maryland tracks. In asking Carulli if he liked anything on the Preakness card, one of the first horses he mentioned was Albert E. To me, this was big. If the local expert respected a shipper like Albert E. in a race predominantly populated with local horses, that indicated to me I didn't have to fear the local horses.

With his somewhat darkened recent form, Albert E. wasn't going to be anywhere near the 4-5 he was the last time he raced in Maryland. But off an aggressive drop in class, his odds weren't going to be big enough to meet my criteria for a win bet. So, I constructed a pick three play using three horses in the third race, singling Albert E., and using six of the eight horses in the fifth race, the Woodlawn Stakes, including the heavy favorite, English Channel.

As the horses were loading into the gate for the third race, I thought about boxing the three horses I used in exactas. But it was still very early in a long day, and I rejected the idea. I then watched What's What, one of the horses I used, hold off one of the other horses I used, Family Ghost, and was sick when they combined for a $389 exacta. Still, I was optimistic, because I began a pick three with a $39 winner. But deep down I knew where this story was going. Only this time, there was a twist.

With about 14 minutes to post for the fourth race, Albert E. was co-favorite on the tote board at 3-1. When I looked at the board a couple of minutes later, he had been scratched. As I talked aloud about my predicament, colleague Dave Grening said, "Hey, you're in line for a consolation." Dave covers New York racing for this paper, and New York is also my home circuit. In New York, if your horse is a late scratch in the second or third legs of a pick three, and you have the other two legs, you receive a consolation payoff. But I knew that some states will put you on the post-time favorite if your horse is scratched.

So, in an effort to find out where I stood, I asked people - many people - if they knew the rule in Maryland. I asked other members of the press, true horseplayers who are known to play multiple signals, and no one knew. One said there should be an explanation in the track program. But even though the Preakness program was 68 pages long, there was no explanation in it. I asked a mutuel clerk, and he told me he was 95 percent sure I was in line for a consolation. I asked a member of the Pimlico press staff, and he was just as certain that I would be switched to the post-time favorite.

For the record, the betting favorite in the fourth turned out to be Acclimate, who broke slowly, was blocked turning for home, and finished third, beaten less than a length but obviously much the best. English Channel galloped in the Woodlawn at 1-2, which turned out to be a good thing as it helped lessen my pain a little. That is, until the pick three was over and paid $734, which is when I learned I in fact had been switched to the unlucky favorite in the fourth, and my ticket was just another loser.

In the end, it is incumbent upon the bettor to know the rules, and I have only myself to blame for being in limbo for two races. At the same time, racetracks don't make it easy to find out the kind of information I needed on Preakness Day. More important, there is no excuse for any racing state to put a bettor on a horse he may not want if there is a late scratch after a multi-race exotic wager sequence has begun. New York has it right. A consolation payoff is the best resolution in such instances.

As a postscript, Albert E. reappeared last Saturday against tougher horses in a claimer at Belmont Park. He was beaten a nose, earning a Beyer Figure of 88. The winning Beyer in the race he was supposed to run in on Preakness Day was 87.