06/19/2001 11:00PM

Yes, the Jockey Championship can be handicapped

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LEXINGTON, KY. - Many of the nation's best riders will compete in the All-Star Jockey Championship, a four-race riding competition, Friday night at Lone Star Park,.

There will be Eclipse Award-winning riders present, as well as Hall of Famers. There will be talented newcomers and sharp veterans who defy their age.

Despite their many differences, they share one thing in common: a history of winning. The 12 riders competing Friday - from Tyler Baze to Laffit Pincay Jr. - have combined to win more than 49,000 races and $1.2 billion in purses.

Let me say that again - 49,000 races and $1.2 billion. Even Bill Gates can appreciate earnings like that.

To a fan of horse racing in Texas, the opportunity to watch them ride would compare to a weekend golfer getting to a chance to caddie in a foursome that includes Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Tiger Woods.

One huge difference - with the jockeys, you get to wager on the outcome. Fans across the country can pick their favorite riders, and wager on them to accumulate the most points (scored by top finishes) in the four-race competition.

Yet I won't be one of those people.

Don't misunderstand me. I'll be betting. This is not only a fun wager, but it's potentially rewarding.

I won't be supporting a favorite rider. I'll wager on whichever rider has the strongest horse in any particular race relation to his price.

This is not a popularity contest. It is not a footrace. It is a series of horse races, plain and simple.

As much as I respect jockeys as athletes, my admiration for them does not compare to the appreciation I have for the horses.

Jockeys cannot run 40 miles an hour. Until they can, I'll stick with wagering on horses, not jockeys.

Every rider will tell you that in the overwhelming majority of races, it comes down to the horse. They can make smart moves or poor tactical decisions that can aid or hamper a horse, but nine times out of 10, the best horse wins the race - irrespective of who is on its back.

The All-Star Jockey championship should be no different.

In fact, the jockeys may take on even less importance in this event.

No agents are involved in Friday's competition. Jerry Bailey's agent does not have his pick of horses to ride in each race. Neither does Pat Day's agent.

For once on the racetrack, the draw for riders is fair. In each of the four Jockey Championship races, which each has 12 entrants, horses are placed by Lone Star track handicappers in groups of three. The three most logical winners represent group A, the next three horses are group B, and so on, down to group C and D.

Each rider is then assigned a mount in each group. So Bailey rides a C horse in the first race of the competition, then a B, then a D, and followed by a A.

In theory, his opportunities should be no greater than those of Robby Albarado, or any other rider in the competition.

The jockeys' mounts then accumulate points for them with top finishes. A win is worth 12 points, a second 6 points, a third 4 points, and a fourth 3 points. If a horse is scratched, the rider receives 1 point.

What is the best strategy for playing the competition?

One is to play against the big-name riders. Because of how their mounts were fairly assigned, lesser-name riders should have as good an opportunity as the high-profile guys have.

Bailey and Day, who were the top choices of fans to compete in this challenge, figure to be overplayed due to their widespread popularity. So, too, does the ageless wonder Pincay, the winningest jockey of all time. Even Corey Lanerie, the top rider at Lone Star, could be overbet because of strong local support.

Value should be present on the other riders, particularly those who aren't household names. Riders such as Ronald Ardoin and Aaron Gryder could get overlooked, as well as soon-to-be Hall of Famer Earlie Fires.

Even more importantly, fans should rely on their handicapping skills. Look closely at the four races - races 3, 4, 6, and 7. Do you disagree with how the Lone Star handicappers set up the pecking order? Do any riders hold an advantage?

Keep in mind that this competition is not just about first-place finishes. Two seconds are worth the same as one win on the points scale. So, in theory, a jockey could win the competition without even winning a race.

Look for riders who have mounts that stand a good chance of finishing in the top four, and continually earning points.

Upon close examination of the four designated races, I favor Ardoin and David Flores to win the competition. Ardoin, a relative unknown on the national scene, has a great opportunity in the third race (the first of the competition) with Riverdancing, and could pick up points with placings from Tin Smithen, Cast Call, and Dickey Rickey in the fourth, sixth, and seventh races, respectively.

Flores, meanwhile, rides the most logical winner on the card - Howell's Poet in race 4. His other main hope is Ceviche in the seventh race, who returns to the grass after a pair of fast races on the main track.

Check the odds board. The All-Star Jockey Championship goes as race 11 on the card, and value is a necessity in what looks like a evenly matched lineup.

Post time for the third race, the first of the series, is 7:39 Central.