Mid-Atlantic Musings (Thinking Minimally) — by John Piassek, Tuesday, June 19, 2018


by John Piassek (@theyreoff)

Los Alamitos’s Pick 4s: Thinking Minimally

In my spare time, I study handle figures, and think to myself: why is handle at certain tracks the way it is? Does field size have a big impact on where a track ranks in the “standings”? How much does races being off the grass affect handle? Is racing during the day or at night better? Is it more beneficial to “hit ’em where they ain’t”, and focus on low-volume times of the week? And so on.

One question I’ve had concerns the impact of wagering minimums. At the majority of tracks, the minimum wager on the very popular pick 4 wager is 50 cents. At big tracks, the pick 4 is one of the highest volume wagers, with pools on big days occasionally passing the $1 million mark. Yet, there has been a contingent of horseplayers who are not a fan of the 50 cent minimum. They contend that having such a low minimum depresses the payouts, and therefore makes the wager less appealing. It’s not clear if this is a majority opinion (a twitter poll I conducted last month suggested otherwise), but it did bring to mind: what if a major track did decide to increase the pick 4 minimum to $1? How would handle and payouts change?

Well, we’re about to get some insight into that. When Los Alamitos kicks off their thoroughbred meet on June 28, they’ll raise their pick 4 minimum wager from 50 cents to $1. They’ve had great success with a $1 pick 4 minimum on their quarter horse races. Last Sunday, the early pick 4 handled a whopping $193,930. That’s more than the 50 cent early pick 4 at Santa Anita Park handled that same day ($186,014). The late pick 4 sequence that night handled more than $160,000, meaning that the two wagers accounted for more than a quarter of Los Al’s handle on that card.

Now, do I believe that increasing the minimum on the thoroughbred cards will have the same success? I don’t know. I believe their are convincing pro and con arguments for a $1 minimum. On one hand, having a higher minimum wager increases payoffs, due to a reduction in the amount of winning tickets. If you have the bankroll to put together big tickets with a $1 minimum, you’ll be nicely rewarded if it hits.

On the other hand, having a higher minimum can price certain players out, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. For a new or small-bankroll player, it’s certainly less intimidating to play a 2x3x2x3 ticket if the cost is $18 rather than $36. In addition, if players lose money faster on a higher-minimum bet, it decreases churn, which is bad for everyone.

That being said, all of this is speculation. I love the move, though, because it’ll give us some insight on if this really works. The $1 pick 4 has gone over so well with the quarter horses, what do they have to lose by extending it to the thoroughbred meet? It’s a fantastic experiment, and should provide great insight on just how popular a $1 pick 4 can be. Other tracks around the country should take note.

For the record, during the eight-day meet last year, the early pick 4 averaged $67,094 in handle, with a median payoff of $154.78. The late sequence averaged $288,865, with a median return of $187.20. Of course, at first those numbers will likely increase at first, but will they keep up over the course of the season? Will the payouts increase enough that that money will be bet back on the rest of the card? Only time will tell.

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