08/08/2002 12:00AM

When the going gets tough, listen to your father-in-law


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Saratoga is the closest thing to summer camp for horseplayers. Don't get me wrong, it's just great to be close to nature, tradition, and all that other warm fuzzy lore of the Spa, and yadda, yadda, yadda. But no matter how hallowed a racetrack's history, it begins to resemble a bleak correctional facility if enough tickets have been crumbled and flung to its storied floorboards.

After a while, it makes you wish Mommy and Daddy could somehow bend the laws of time and space and pull up in the old family station wagon to take you home, or at least out for a free dinner.

If the streak lasts long enough, by the way, that's when you start noticing the insufferably bad brass-band melodies that blare through every nightclub on Saratoga's main drag, and which punctuate all the annoyingly merry advertising jingles, especially the one that entices you to play the guaranteed jackpot pick four on Saturdays.

What Madison Avenue genius came up with the idea that nothing says "Saratoga" like an off-key trombone, anyway? Whoever it was should be sentenced to six weeks of trying to get into a local restaurant at a reasonable hour.

So far, with two weeks plus one racing day in the books, my most productive relationship with those unfeeling, uncaring screen-activated mutuel machines took place this past Monday, and only because I was busy working and didn't walk over to one. In other words, it was the old "I need to break even because I need the money" routine.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, the game hinges always on confidence and rhythm, and one can't exist without the other.

Streaks, good and bad, go hand-in-hand with this avocation, and the racing gods don't seem to understand that inevitable dry spells are at least a bit more palatable at Aqueduct when the wind chill dives below zero. When you're going bad, despair knows no season, and it seems as though there's a new way to get caught in the switches each and every day.

Last Saturday's pick four, for instance, began with an entry-level allowance route that had been taken off the turf and transferred to the main track. An inscrutable field of seven remained, and since it was so difficult to come up with a case for anyone, the mini-syndicate consisting of myself and my cohort David Grening made the inspired decision to hit the "all" button and root for something chaotic to happen. That strategy ensured that Connie's Magic would triumph as the 8-5 favorite, even though he had beaten a grand total of one horse while up the track in two races back from a layoff downstate.

Needless to say, using "all" in that race left us on relatively thin ice the rest of the way and we failed to connect. To rub it in, Connie's Magic was wheeled back to the races with less rest than Roger Clemens gets between starts, and won the last leg of Wednesday's pick four as well.

Indeed, Wednesday's pick four began with a sprint for 2-year-old New York-bred maidens. Go Rockin' Robin, who could conceivably have been named after my better half but was not, was switching to Jerry Bailey after a sharp race downstate and looked like the one to beat at odds-on.

Meanwhile, my father-in-law Walter, who is a fun-loving 77 years young, hangs out in an OTB on Long Island that doubles as a social center for senior citizens who happen to like a little action. He calls almost daily for picks, and is the kind of blessed soul who can turn anyone's set of selections, no matter how misguided, into a winning day:

"I used the three you gave me, and threw in Chop Chop's horse because. . . [insert any reason] . . . and that's how I caught the trifecta."

He called for Wednesday's rundown at around noon, and after we'd gone through my one-two-threes he said, "One of the boys here is friends with a guy who said his nephew got a call about the two-horse in the sixth race. Did you hear anything?"

"No, but Tom Bush is good with first-time starters," I replied, adhering to my policy of never cold-watering anybody about any horse, and also noting that Daily Racing Form's trainer stats pegged Bush firsters with a gaudy $3.61 ROI. "Hook him up with my top three and hope for the best."

With that I hung up and chuckled at the idea that after nearly 20 years of my being his son-in-law, Walter was now touting me. But I wasn't laughing later on when the Tom Bush-trained firster Infinite Justice broke alertly and shrugged off early pace pressure to win by seven at 11-1.

My wife, naturally, was all over Go Rockin' Robin, and took not too seriously the stable information that had been supplied by her father some 200 miles away. She bet her namesake to win, keyed it with my top three picks, and just for good measure also boxed the chalk with Walter's good thing.

The "steam horse" aired, and my 10-1 second choice took a blanket photo to get the runner-up spot, as Go Rockin' Robin struggled and wound up fourth. All of which is to say that we effectively surrounded a $251 exacta with just about every combination except the right one.

The inevitable rehash of the whole thing with Walter has yet to take place, and I'm not looking forward to it because there's nothing worse than having to admit you screwed up your tipster's longshot winner.

Maybe I won't have to. It's late Thursday afternoon and usually Walter has called by now. Somehow I have the feeling he no longer wants or needs my help.