07/23/2003 11:00PM

When betting trifecta, look for big fields, bad favorites

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Here in paradise, summertime horseplayers have few reasons to complain. Whether it is morning surf or afternoon turf, a fellow can find just about everything he needs in Del Mar.

If the opening-day card was not particularly profitable, why worry? There are seven more weeks of racing and gambling on the seaside roller coaster. Grab hold - it's a wild ride. Assuming 2003 will be similar to seasons past, the lucky breaks and bad beats are sure to even out. Usually, sensible handicapping will compensate for the times when a handicapper is just plain wrong.

It happened the first race of the meet. Desert Boom was supposed to improve many lengths in his first start after being claimed by trainer Bill Spawr, but the horse washed out in the post parade and was empty at the quarter pole. Most of the Cal-bred allowance runners ran to their figures, and even-money Tizawinner won, just as the betting public predicted.

The public was right again in the third race, for maiden 2-year-olds. It featured a $1.5 million yearling by A.P. Indy with strong works and a trainer whose five debut juveniles this season had racked up four wins. But when the Eoin Harty-trained Rosberg opened at 5-1 (off a 5-2 morning line) and was virtually ignored throughout the betting, a handicapper might have surmised that the colt needed the start. All five of Harty's rookie 2-year-olds this year started at 6-5 or less. Not Rosberg. At 4-1, he was beaten more than 11 lengths in what amounted to an inconclusive schooling run.

While Rosberg was given a race, the Bob Baffert-trained Attack Alert already had one. A second-time starter, the colt won with authority, drawing away by three lengths in a solid 1:03.66. He paid $4.40, the third winning favorite from the first four races. But on opening day, there would be no more chalk. A $53.80 winner in race 6 (Bound for Freedom) was a Turf Paradise shipper ridden by leading jockey Pat Valenzuela. A $49.80 comebacker saddled by Bruce Headley in race 7 (Grand Appointment) took advantage of a brutal pace and was up in the last stride.

Those longshot winners fueled hope for bettors who aim even higher, by trying for jackpots in the trifecta. More than $2.4 million was wagered Wednesday on Del Mar trifectas, underscoring the bet's enormous popularity. Last season at Del Mar, only two other wager types attracted more action - the ever-popular win wager accounted for 21.7 percent of handle, exactas 20.5 percent, and trifectas 19.9 percent.

The Wednesday longshots triggered boxcar trifectas. The $1 trifecta in the sixth race paid $2,826.70; in the seventh race it paid $1,636. It might lead one to believe that home runs are frequent in the trifecta. But they are not. Last season at Del Mar, trifectas were offered on 358 races, and the payoff exceeded $1,000 only 22 times.

There are, however, two contributing factors that increase chances for a score - large fields (at least nine starters) and vulnerable favorites. Of the 22 trifectas last year that paid $1,000 or more, only one was won by the favorite. In 17 races, the favorite ran out entirely. Further, there were nine or more starters in 18 of the 22 races. The pattern repeated Wednesday - both bomber trifectas had 11 starters, and in both races the favorite finished up the track.

The trifecta does not have to produce a huge payoff to be considered sensible. A bettor cannot hit a home run every time he goes to the window. Most of the time, the payoffs are reasonably small. That's okay, as long as one realizes what "small" really means.

Del Mar trifectas have settled into a predictable range. As expected, the larger the field size, the higher the payoff. During the 2002 meet, the overall median payoff was $126. Median means half the payoffs were higher and half were lower.

Here is a breakdown by field size. Three races with dead heats were not included. That left 355 races:

Del Mar trifectas-2002 meet

Median payoff by field size

12 runners: $300(19 races)

11 runners: $377(18 races)

10 runners: $262(50 races)

9 runners: $218(65 races)

8 runners: $157(72 races)

7 runners: $94 (69 races)

6 runners: $62(45 races)

5 runners: $23(16 races)

4 runners: $17(1 race)

As one might expect, the more wagering interests per race, the higher the payoff. The fact the median payoff in 12-horse fields was smaller than 11-horse fields is an anomaly - favorites won an inordinately high percentage (9 of 19) of the 12-runner races. Beyond field size, the finish position of the first two betting choices is a contributing factor in payoff size.

When the first and second choices both hit the board, the trifecta is hardly worthwhile. Last season's high payoffs with the one-two favorites both finishing in the money were $600, $421, $377, and $238.

In order to play the trifecta sensibly, a handicapper must fashion a negative opinion on at least one of the first two choices. The opinion must be strong enough to throw out the low-odds horse altogether. The trifecta bettor may then proceed, preferably if the field includes nine or more starters.

At Del Mar, the trifecta is not a get-rich gimmick. But when played with a dose of common sense, the wager can make seven weeks in paradise all the more enjoyable.

* For the record: This horseplayer will wager on all four pools of the first round of the 2003 Breeders' Cup Future Wager this weekend - the Classic , Sprint, Turf and Distaff. The selected wager will be the same in each pool - No. 24, "all others." Let chaos rain down. It always does.