06/01/2001 12:00AM

Y'all come back now, hear?


Horseplayers around the country who are serious enough about the game to be reading this newspaper have many reasons to be looking forward to Saturday's races at Belmont Park. There's the rubber match between Point Given and Monarchos in the Belmont Stakes, an undercard full of other big-name horses in significant stakes races, a $250,000-guaranteed pick four, and a $1 million-guaranteed pick six.

There's one even better reason for those of us who regularly improve the breed through our parimutuel investments to be licking our chops. It's the same reason that I try to spend the first weekend of every December in Las Vegas.

That is the weekend of the National Finals Rodeo, which means it is the most wonderful time of the year for any marginally competent poker player. During this magical season, the town is filled with cowboys, who love to drink and gamble in that order, and who think it is their birthright as cowboys to win at poker. They sit down at the card tables, take out their bulging money clips, and order yet another drink. They don't know how to play, but they love the action and don't seem too upset as the other players methodically take their money. It's a thing of beauty.

Horseplayers don't get these kinds of opportunities too often. Much of the sucker money that used to swell the mutuel pools in the good old days has been transferred to state lotteries and slot machines. On an afternoon such as Belmont Stakes Day, however, happy days are here again.

Instead of the usual Saturday crowd of 8,000 at Belmont, there will be more like 58,000, and most of those additional 50,000 are our cowboys. Few of them will study a Form and many will be legally intoxicated by mid-afternoon. It is our right - nay, our duty! - to make them feel happy and welcome and then to take as much of their money as we possibly can.

This may sound unduly harsh and cynical, but in fact it is what we are trying to do every time we make a bet at the track. One of the great romantic myths of racing is that the players are a merry band of brothers united in their quest to pick winners. This is the case at a blackjack table, where everyone is playing against the house and the players all win when the dealer busts out. At the racetrack, however, every bettor is playing only against the other bettors. The house takes its cut off the top and has no financial interest in how the remaining money is carved up.

The other bettors, not the house, set the odds, and the winners are the ones who best exploit the gap between the actual likelihood of things and the prices on the board. Those gaps, also known as overlays, increase when there is money being bet virtually at random into the pools.

Thinking of big race days this way suggests that there is an optimal way to exploit them that may be different from your first impulse to chase any plausible longshot. When the cowboys sit down at your poker table, you're not supposed to be pulling against the odds for inside straights and playing like a maniac. Leave that to them. You're supposed to be play solid, conservative poker by the book.

Similarly, instead of being too much of a wiseguy and searching for goofy 40-1 shots on a big race day, the trick may be to take advantage of the obvious. Look at what happened on Preakness Day, with 100,000 people in the house, in the four straight stakes races culminating with the main event. Perfect Cat ($4.80), Hap ($7.20), Disco Rico ($8.40), and Point Given ($6.60) may not sound like thrilling investments, but you didn't have to go very deep to use them all in the pick four, in which they combined for a $518.20 payoff - spectacular value against a parlay of $239.50. Pimlico's low 14 percent takeout on the pick four helped that price, but even at a 25 percent takeout the payoff would have been nearly twice the parlay.

The Preakness itself yielded exceptional value on unexceptional selections. If you had focused on the obvious, logical contenders instead of trying to talk yourself into the overmatched likes of Mr. John or Marciano, as the infield cowboys were doing in a final stab at getting out for the day, the rewards were a lot better than they would have been on a typical Saturday at Pimlico. The $81.40 exacta with A P Valentine was almost twice the usual return for a 2-1 favorite over a 10-1 shot. Boxing the five favorites in a $2 trifecta returned $279 for a $120 investment, and the same unimaginative box in the superfecta paid $1,434.60 for a $240 play.

A big race day is like having a pick six carryover on every race: There's extra money in the pool and payoffs are higher than they should be. Don't feel guilty about reaching in and taking your fair share. Just remember to smile at the cowboys and commiserate with them about their bad luck. You want them to come back real soon.