11/18/2004 1:00AM

Where to find hittable $30 winners


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - How does a bettor find longshot winners? Specifically, how can one identify potential bombers that might transform an average pick four into an unforgettable payoff?

The question is increasingly relevant, because the $1 pick four has spread like wildfire to become the most popular parimutuel improvements of recent years. Yet even now, four years after Hollywood Park added the bet to the daily Southern California wagering menu, there remains a divergence of opinions on how the wager should be played.

Do you bet just one ticket and use multiple horses in each leg? Or play multiple tickets by singling key horses, while relegating others to secondary status on "backup" tickets? How high should one aim? Do you shoot for the moon and try to hit a pick four that pays $1,000 or more? Or do you play conservatively and aim for a payoff in the mere hundreds?

The questions are a matter of preference. And while the most effective strategy remains a multiple-ticket approach, it is not the most popular. Few horseplayers are willing to spend time constructing the pick four using key horses and backups. For most, a lazy single-ticket approach will do. No problem; different strokes for different folks.

However, one strategic blunder gaining increased chatter cannot go unchallenged. It is the preposterous suggestion that in order to hit a huge pick four, it may be necessary to wheel an entire field and then hope for chaos. The idea is laughable and absurd.

Make no mistake - longshot winners are difficult to uncover. It can require a skeptical opinion of the favorite, imaginative handicapping, and inventive strategy. Yet the upset winners are not impossible to find. And it is not necessary to wheel an entire field to find the type of overlays that can key a memorable pick four.

Longshot winners that pay $30 or more (an arbitrary benchmark) occur roughly three times a week in Southern California. Since the start of the 2003-2004 Santa Anita winter meet, through Wednesday at Hollywood, there have been 147 winners from 2,130 races in Southern California that returned $30 or more for a $2 win bet. That is a strike rate of almost 7 percent.

The idea for bettors playing sequential wagers such as the pick four is to identify horses with longshot potential. But there is a huge difference between being bold and being reckless. The shotgun approach that advocates the "all" button - using every horse in a field and then praying for craziness - is little more than squandering resources.

The initial consideration before spreading in a race is to determine the strength of the contenders. Odds remain a key factor, but it can make little sense to bet against a favorite that is in sharp physical condition, properly spotted at the class, capable of earning speed figures appropriate to the level, with a running style suited to the likely pace.

When the favorite or favorites are vulnerable on one or more accounts, opening up a race makes sense. Question is, what types of outsiders frequently produce longshot wins? Usually, they are the unknown.

First-time starters accounted for 22 of the 147 winners (nearly 15 percent) that paid $30 or more in Southern California since the start of the winter meet. Debut runners comprise a large segment of the horse population, so the high percentage makes sense.

Many debut winners hail from well-recognized stables, including John Sadler-trained Warison ($92.60), Martin Jones-trained Home Ice ($69.60), and Doug O'Neill-trained Dixie Dos ($63.60). Even the best 2-year-old in California - Hollywood Prevue favorite Declan's Moon - paid $31.40 winning his debut for trainer Ron Ellis.

Layoff horses accounted for 17 of the $30-plus upset winners (11 percent). Any horse returning from a layoff is eligible to outrun expectations. Horses often undergo physical changes during time off and return with renewed enthusiasm. The highest-paying comeback winner was $112.20 Fudge Fatale on Jan. 28, making her first start in three months for trainer Beau Greely.

Shippers have won 12 races (8 percent of the upset winners), including $88.80 Unrivalled, who also was a first-time gelding when he made his U.S. debut March 17 in a minor stakes for trainer Jim Cassidy. Shippers arrive from other countries and circuits, and because they cannot be readily classified relative to familiar local runners, they can be overlooked.

Pico Central, a Group 1 winner from Brazil, was completely disregarded when he made his U.S. debut Jan. 25 in a three-other-than allowance race. He returned $77 winning via disqualification, then came back and paid $88.40 winning the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap on March 7.

The repeat upset by Pico Central illustrates an interesting phenomenon - longshot winners sometimes come right back and do it again. Charlenesuperblend paid $34.80 on Aug. 4, her first start following a $31.40 maiden win. Okie Dokie Kookie paid $44 on June 27, her first start following a $75 win. Habaneros paid $51 on Aug. 29, his first start following a $54.80 layoff win. When a horse springs an upset, it is eligible to do it again.

Second-time starters have accounted for 10 upset wins at $30 or more, and handicappers who hoped to see a smidgen of ability first out were caught napping. Only one of the second-timers finished in the money in its debut. But wakeups occur, and there is nothing like an initial out to stir a horse's competitive juices. In High Form finished second in her debut in a $25,000 maiden claimer. When trainer Carla Gaines brought her back May 30 in a maiden special weight, her Beyer Speed Figure improved 20 points and she paid $85.20.

Surface switches accounted for 18 upset winners, while distance changes accounted for only 10. Those totals include the four upset winners that were changing both distance and surface, including two offspring of Unusual Heat going sprint-to-route, and dirt-to-turf. They were $40.20 The Toast of Troy on Feb. 8, and $31 Scrofa on Aug. 16.

There may be no greater effect on a horse's form than change, and when a horse tries something different - racing for the first time, returning from a layoff, or changing conditions - surprises occur.

They can be found without squandering resources by wheeling an entire field. Potential bombers that can transform an average pick four into an unforgettable payoff are out there, and sometimes not so difficult to find.