By John Piassek
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Thursday, January 7 was a big day in the national racing scene. That day, Santa Anita had a big carryover in their $2 pick six wager, of more than $378,000. Bettors jumped on this like a dog jumps on a piece of meat, wagering more than $2.1 million into the pool. The whole time, I watched, stunned, at all the money being put into the pool.
Why? Because the pick 6—like many other exotic wagers—is a low-churn wager, which does quite the number on handle. In an era with much better wagering options, any money wagered at all on a wager like that is irresponsibly bet.
The pick 6 came into existence in California in the early 1980s, with a minimum of $2 per wager. In an era where the only wagers in California were the traditional $2 win-place-show wagers, one $2 daily double per day, and the occasional $5 exacta, having a $2 for the pick 6 was not unusual. Indeed, the whole idea that a $2 bet could pay in the six figures was enticing, and the wager enjoyed a long and rich history not just in California, but across the country. In its time, the NYRA version of the pick 6 saw hundreds of thousands of dollars bet on it per day.
Times have changed, however. Now, wagers like the pick 4 and the pick 5—which did not come into existence until 2000 and 2007, respectively—offer an easier bet, for a lower price. Both bets are offered at 50 cent-minimums at most tracks, creating excellent wagering opportunities. A $64 investment in the pick 5, for example, buys a bettor 128 different combinations over five races, allowing opportunities to “spread out” and use more horses per race, giving the bettor a better opportunity to win.
By contrast, a $64 bet in the pick 6 only gets the bettor 32 combinations over six races, making their chances of winning almost non-existent. In fact, Steve Crist once called a $64 bet on the pick 6 “the minimum requirement for a fighting chance on a very easy card”. The $64, as such, is always better spent on the pick 5.
What does this have to do with anything, you may ask? A lot. In an era where tracks need every dollar of handle they can get, it’s important that bettors get a lot of the money that they bet back. If a player putting $64 in the pick 5 continually hits for a few hundred dollars, for example, that money keeps going back into the pools, increasing handle. It’s high churn. Putting that kind of money into the pick 6, in most cases, gets the bettor nowhere, and causes them to lose money faster. In turn, their handle shrinks.
The idea of “exotic” wagers is that they should be somewhat difficult, yet cheap enough that they can be played steadily, and are also somewhat hittable. The 50 cent pick 4 and pick 5—as well as the 20 cent jackpot pick 6 that has caught on at some tracks—fit that mold. A $2 pick 6 does not.
Such ideas are shown in the statistics. On Sunday, January 10, the pick 5 at Santa Anita paid $835.50 for 50 cents. With a pool of $420,648 before (14%) takeout, this meant that there were approximately 433 winning tickets. By contrast, the pick 6 paid $2,224 (for a $2 bet, not a lot). From a pool of $155,718, that’s only 53 winning tickets. Having that many winners on the pick 6 is actually the exception, rather than the rule. During the first seven days of the Santa Anita meet, only one time did the pick 6 have more than ten winners.
The super high 5 is another wager that track managements seem to love, despite the fact that it has the same problems as the pick 6. The super high 5 requires the bettor to pick the first five finishers in a race, a feat roughly on par with making a hole-in-one on a golf course using a toy putter. Despite this difficulty, many tracks are beginning to offer them on every race, sometimes with a $1 minimum bet. The betting public’s aversion is plainly on display: on January 9 at Laurel Park, the four super high 5s without a carryover pool averaged a mere $1,150. That $1,150 would be much better served going into a ten cent superfecta pool, or perhaps a 50 cent trifecta pool, where at least the bettors will have a fighting chance of getting it back, instead of throwing it down a rabbit hole.
Moral to bettors: don’t throw money at low-churn wagers. Moral to racetracks: stop offering low-churn wagers, and you’ll probably see some handle increases over time.
John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.