For those wise enough to be foolish

Oscar Wilde once complimented a character for being "much too wise not to do foolish things" from time to time. And if Kentucky Derby Futures are among the most foolish of things -- well, that only makes them more appealing to the wise.

"There are professionals who play, people who are looking for a big score, people who just want to have a good time and everything in between," explained Johnny Avello, the executive director of the Wynn Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas, about Kentucky Derby Future, or antepost, betting.

There are professionals who play, people who are looking for a big score, people who just want to have a good time and everything in between

-- Johnny Avello, Executive Director of Wynn Race and Sports Book

The Wynn's Kentucky Derby Future pool opened in September, where the wise could have gotten 150-1 odds on Algorithms. The handsome son of Bernardini had won his debut impressively in June at Belmont Park.

Since then, of course, Algorithms has added two more victories to his resume', including the Holy Bull Stakes in dominating style. And he could be only approaching his best form, which he should discover at longer distances. As he prepares for the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26, which will be his first race around two turns, he looks, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher, like a horse "who'll run all day."

And so Algorithms has become the 10-1 co-favorite at Wynn, along with Union Rags, the Champagne winner and Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up. But even at those odds, Avello said, the bets continue to flow in on both. Some bettors, it would seem, just want the action, or the fun, or perhaps a rooting interest or maybe an emotional investment in a horse they can follow along the road to the Triple Crown.

Union Rags will make his seasonal debut in the Fountain of Youth, which could establish, at least for a while, a clear Derby favorite. He's followed in the Wynn Future by Alpha at 11-1; Discreet Dancer and Hansen at 18-1; Creative Cause, Liaison and Dullahan at 20-1.

Futures are inherently high-risk wagers for the obvious reason that they invest in an outcome that, in this case, is nearly three months down the road. At this point, with 398 nominees to the Triple Crown, the odds of a horse's just being in the starting gate are about 20-1. And there are no refunds, regardless of injury, illness or apocalypse.

Still, the Futures appeal, and not just because they can provide that fillip of risk that every life requires if it's not going to get mired in the quotidian. Once a Futures bet is made with Avello, its odds are fixed, which can result in lucrative rewards. Avello said he has paid out as much as $250,000 to a winner of the Kentucky Derby Future wager.

Churchill Downs opens its first Derby Future pool Friday. (There will be two more.) Unlike the Vegas Futures, Churchill's is a pari-mutuel wager, which, of course, means the odds will fluctuate until the pool closes on Sunday. Also, Churchill offers only 23 individual betting interests, compared to 352 at Wynn. And so Churchill's Future pool has a mutuel field that includes all horses not listed individually.

Since Churchill began offering a Future bet in 1999, the mutual field consistently has been the betting favorite in the first pool. Six of the 13 winners have been in the "field."

(It remains a mystery why Churchill can't offer odds on each nominated horse. Officials have attributed the limited format to the tote system. But if the tote system can handle 11,880 superfecta possibilities in a 12-horse field, then why can't it handle 398 Derby nominees?)

The "field" is the 9-5 favorite in the morning line for the Churchill Future. Algorithms is the clear 8-1 choice among the individual horses, followed by Union Rags at 10-1 and Hansen at 12-1. Yes, 12-1 on Hansen. And he could indeed attract considerable attention if he becomes, as planned, the first horse to roll down the Triple Crown road disguised as a Mardi Gras float, with his tail dyed blue and his mane yellow and blue.

Actually, though, the Churchill line seems rather bizarre: It lists Dullahan, who hasn't had a serious workout in nearly a month and hasn't raced since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, at 15-1, while Out of Bounds, who gave one of the best performances of the season in winning the Sham, is 20-1. And Secret Circle, whose half-length loss in the Sham was the first of his career, isn't even included among the individual betting interests. He's 30-1 at Wynn.

Anyway, it's all fun, even if a little foolish. But a Futures wager can be more wise than foolish. For example -- and this, for hypothetical purposes, will rely on the Churchill morning line -- somebody willing to invest $100 could spread out in such a way that he'd profit if any of 382 horses wins the Derby (or more, including late nominees). He could put $40 on the mutuel field (9-5 at Churchill) and bet the remaining $60 in increments of $5 and $10 on Algorithms (10-1 at Wynn), Alpha (20-1 at Churchill), Creative Cause (20-1 at Churchill), El Padrino (28-1 at Wynn), Fed Biz (40-1 at Wynn), Empire Way (50-1 at Churchill), I'll Have Another (65-1 at Wynn) and Mark Valeski (175-1 at Wynn).

Only 16 horses could beat such an investor, foremost among them being Union Rags and Discreet Dancer. And depending on the outcome of the Fountain of Youth, both horses could offer more enticing odds in Churchill's second Futures pool.

A few people, Avello said, play the Futures that way, spreading out in so many pools and with so many horses that they've turned a multitude of possibilities into positive outcomes, ranging from the marginally to the magnificently profitable. That's how the wise look to the Future.