Bright futures

It seems like the Kentucky Derby is right around the corner when, in fact, it is barely on the radar, it's more than three months out.

Its virtual apparentness is caused by the new Kentucky Derby point system that is apt to make high-dollar trainers train more and drink coffee and pose less. Until the point system became the rule, a horse could win the slot-inspired $2 million Hooterville Derby in December and graze into Churchill backed by only a single fluky victory.

With the advent of the point system, trainers have to use their heads for something besides photo ops. When you're collecting points, not Monopoly money, such things as scheduling -- dodging hot horses -- becomes important. The road to the Kentucky Derby is no longer paved with fool's gold. It's down and dirty. Itsmyluckyday, who set a track record at the Holy Bull? Tied for fourth in the points standings. Nice win. So what's next?

Increased Derby awareness will benefit the futures wagering games, which begin a three-pool run the weekend of Feb. 8, 9 and 10. The other two futures pools will take money March 1, 2 and 3, and March 22, 23 and 24.

The premise of a futures bet is simple enough: Pick a winner, or pick an exacta, around three months before post time.

As common sense dictates, the earliest correct futures pool winner pays best. Last year, I'll Have Another paid $60.20 to win in the first futures pool, $46.20 to win in the second pool, and $45.60 to win in the final round. At the track, a win ticket was worth $32.60.

Last year's Derby futures pool attracted $1.4 million.

In each pool, there will be 23 single horse betting interests, and one "field" bet. Whereas having them "all" sounds inviting, most field horses belong in fields.

Big odds are alluring.

Here's one goal of a future's bet: to have a 35-1 pool ticket on the horse that goes to the post at the Derby at odds of 6-5.

Futures bets are offered on most popular sports.

The Baltimore Ravens were 18-1 to win the Super Bowl before the season began, even 22-1 to win it all on New Year's Day.

Here's one thing that makes a Kentucky Derby futures wager the most difficult investment in all of sports: Teams like the Ravens or the 49ers don't get hurt and retire to the breeding shed. Teams keep playing. But sometimes even the best horses become injured and are withdrawn from the Derby. Young horses in particular are wound tighter than an all-pro linebacker. Great care is taken with the health of expensive young horses. But a horse can find a nail in the north 40, and step on it. So if you have a $50 futures win bet on a 75-1 shot that looks great until it pulls a muscle and is scratched from the Derby, here's what you can do with your ticket. Put it in the tax loss box.

With a futures bet on a horse, forget the race itself, the hardest part is getting to the gate. For which the investor is paid nothing.

So a horse race futures pool is essentially a fund-raiser for the bookmaker.

If the horse of your futures pool dreams takes a bad step on the way to watch butterflies on one bright March morning, tough, there are no refunds, you lose.

Still, big numbers are hard to ignore.

Seventy-five-to-one on a horse that actually has a chance? On one that could go to the post at 10-1 or less?

The futures pools captures one of the appeals of horse racing, something that looks better on paper than it really is.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.