01/09/2004 12:00AM

Winning jockey is losing bet


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Rafael Bejarano is far and away the best jockey at Turfway Park, and whoever is second best is so far behind him that it barely matters. Barring injury or plans to relocate, he will continue to dominate the jockey standings with ease. The problem for Bejarano is that regardless of how successful he is at this meet, bettors will expect even more from him and will overbet the horses he rides so much that he is all but certain to come up short of their expectations.

Three weeks ago Bejarano was red-hot, with a 34 percent win rate. But despite that sky-high number, fans who had bet on all of his mounts collected less than a 1 percent profit because his winners returned an average payoff of just $5.80. Starting with the Dec. 19 race card, I recommended that handicappers who follow the Turfway Park meet should begin betting against horses ridden by Bejarano on the theory that his mounts were on the verge of becoming unprofitable. The way I saw it, if he continued to win a high percentage of races his average win payoff would drop even lower, and that would lead to losses. If his win percentage dropped, the remaining winners were not going to pay enough to support that lower success rate, and losses would ensue. If both numbers dropped, double-digit losses were probable.

Here are the early results: Starting with the December 19 card, Bejarano has ridden 66 races at Turfway. He won 21 of those races, or 32 percent, a drop of two points from his previous win percentage. Although Bejarano made headlines when he rode a record-equaling six winners from 10 mounts during this period, on Jan. 2, profits for bettors were modest since the win prices on those horses were low at $3.40, $3.80, $5, $5.60, $6.20, and $6.80. Bejarano enjoyed just two other profitable race cards from a total of eight during that span, and those gains were mild at $4.40 on Dec. 21, and $1 on Jan. 7.

Overall, his win payoffs totaled $117.20. That works out to $5.58 per winner, which is 22 cents lower than the already stunted $5.80 average his winners paid through Dec. 18. His average return on each $2 bet dropped from $2.01 to $1.77.

Nevertheless, despite his falling return on investment, bettors are much more likely to remember Bejarano's record-equaling six-winner performance and his dominance of the jockey standings than they are likely to recall the more ordinary days and nights when those profits evaporated, and losses accumulated.

I will continue to bet against Bejarano at Turfway when he is riding anything less than a dominant horse. My hope is that he will become profitable again when he is riding longer-priced horses while battling stronger jockey opposition at Keeneland and Churchill, but my fear is that he may have created so many loyal fans for himself at this meet that he may no longer be able to produce flat-bet profits at other venues on the Kentucky circuit.

Welcome back, speed bias

When Turfway chose to change the composition of the racing surface last year to make it better able to withstand the rigors of winter racing, it was unclear how that change might influence the track bias. The traditional trend was that Turfway was a speed-favoring surface, but in recent years that has not always been the case, and off-the-pace runners and closers have been more productive than usual.

The early results from the holiday meet suggested that things had changed even more, as front-runners usually wilted down the stretch, with closers having the best of it.

The good news for those of us who loved the way Turfway used to play is that early speed is now just as effective on the new surface as it was during the best days of the old speed-favoring surfaces. The results of the last five racing cards, covering Jan. 2-8, illustrate the trend that has been in force in recent weeks. Sixteen of those 50 races were won by the horse who led at the first call. That is a healthy 32 percent success rate, which very much resembles the way Turfway played during most of the 1990's. Most serious bettors prefer the presence of a predictable track bias, so the current trend might also turn out to be good for business if it holds up for the rest of the meet.