08/09/2006 12:00AM

Who knew losing could be fun?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - I spent a very long weekend at Saratoga, eating way too much food at Sergio's, waiting way too long to eat at the Springwater Bistro, laughing with good friends, wandering the backstretch, and spending far too much time looking at past performances.

Can I come back this weekend?

My weekend officially ended when an 0-for-18 New York-bred that I used in my dead pick four, but not in my now-dead pick three, ran by the field in the fifth race on Monday. I was on the Northway heading south before the sixth.

Can I come back this weekend?

Saratoga may be old, but it never gets old. What gets old is the frustration of trying to play this game. Which, of course, won't stop me from playing some more.

Can I come back this weekend?

After looking at 33 races (I got there in midafternoon Friday, which gave me just enough time to put together an insta-pick four that was alive briefly), I ended up with just two strong opinions. Both proved correct. And I got crushed.

While others were looking at Saturday's Test (I got a headache) and Whitney, I was looking a first-level allowance for New York-breds going 5 1/2 furlongs.

Ferocious Fires leaped off the page in the third race. The 3-year-old colt won his debut by eight lengths in a New York-bred maiden race on Feb. 26, getting a 77 Beyer. He had not run since, but I got a pretty good story that suggested he was going to fire just as big or bigger in his comeback race.

I thought 6-5 would be a bargain, but that wasn't the point. I was looking for a single in pick fours and pick threes. This was it.

I was going to start a pick three with the first race and then start a pick four and another pick three in the second, with one final pick three starting with the third. Ferocious Fires was a single on all tickets.

When I was informed there are no pick threes starting in the first, I wondered if this was really the 21st century. I got a break when the favorite won the first. I was going to go deep.

Got live to Ferocious Fires in the second with a 6-1 shot, but I was more heavily invested with two others. Money poured in late, and Ferocious Fires went off at 4-5. I thought he would be in front and bet exactas looking for closers. Ferocious Fires missed the break and was five lengths behind the field. It was messing with my exactas, but I wasn't really concerned. I should have been.

Ferocious Fires cruised by most of the field on the backstretch. The race looked over. It wasn't. Mr. Bourbon Street, in from Finger Lakes for his first race since November and ridden by Paul Nicol Jr., whom I knew very well in another life when he was getting his start in Maryland, was running like Affirmed. Finally, Ferocious Fires edged by and won the race.

I was alive - barely. I got a 5-1 shot to win the fourth to bring home one pick three. I was live to just two horses in the fifth for the pick three and pick four. I really liked Ziplocked, trained by Scott Lake. I was informed he wins a few races.

On the turn, Ziplocked was stuck in between horses, looking like he had no chance. I began to look for my other horse. Did not see that one. Looked back and Ziplocked started to come again on the inside and edged a firster at the wire in a very lucky win. That would be the end of my luck.

I caught two pick threes and the pick four, but it cost me a lot to get that money. I was not going to retire.

After looking at Sunday's card for about five hours, I came to one conclusion. I liked nothing. My only opinion was that I thought Artie Schiller was vulnerable in the Fourstardave. So I constructed a pick four on that proposition.

When I got live in the first leg with a 12-1 shot, I thought this might be the day. In the second leg, I had what I thought were the only two members of the horse family in a New York-bred stakes. They stalked a no-chance speedball in second and third. Looked easy. They backed out at the top of the stretch and were nowhere. I was gone before I could even root against Artie Schiller.

Artie Schiller was a bad fourth. I had the other four in there and the field in the last. I really did not want to see a 50-1 shot. Well, it was only a 5-1 shot that won the finale. The pick four paid more than $13,000. I am guessing mine might have paid around $8,000. But it wasn't terribly relevant.

I had no clue about Monday's card, but felt obligated to play. I got the result I deserved when I singled a James Bond-trained New York-bred at the end of a pick three. The heavy favorite, my horse got a perfect trip just behind the speed and began to retreat as the field turned into the stretch. I was heading down the escalator before the winner made his way to the winner's circle.

What did I learn? Framing bets around one strong opinion is a fine way to play. But even when you are right, it can always turn out terribly wrong.

I had planned on taking my winnings to the sales pavilion on Tuesday and/or Wednesday night and outbidding Coolmore and the sheikhs.

I was detoured. And sent out the back.

Can I come back this weekend?