07/22/2013 1:21PM

Andrew Beyer: The worst bad-beat story of all time

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When the horses crossed the finish line in the final race at Louisiana Downs on Saturday, the track announcer exclaimed, "Tsavo is a two-length winner, taking down the Super Pick Five!"

The Super Pick Five is one of the new breed of "jackpot" bets; if a player hits five winners and holds the lone ticket on the winning combination, he collects a big payoff. As the size of the Louisiana Downs jackpot grew into six figures, it attracted national attention, and nobody was more galvanized by Saturday’s events than two men 1,100 miles from the track, in Charles Town, W.Va.

They had shared a wager on the Super Pick Five and watched their picks win the first four races. Then they stared with excitement at the probable payoffs on track’s television feed, which showed that Tsavo, one of their two horses in the finale, would produce a $488,000 payoff. It would be the score of a lifetime for both men.

Instead, the race became something very different for Billy Kennedy and Jimmy Appell.

Kennedy is a jockey agent, representing Travis Dunkelberger and Jose Montano, the leading rider at the current Charles Town meeting. Appell, 65, is a lifelong fan who owns a few Thoroughbreds. They frequently collaborate on wagers, and when they became aware of the six-figure jackpot at Louisiana Downs, they discussed the Saturday card and formulated a $240 play. Kennedy took two-thirds of the investment and made the wager through his TwinSpires online betting account.

Appell watched from the track and Kennedy from home as the drama unfolded. They won the first four races with horses paying $15.80, $51.20, $7.40, and $8.80, and had two selections in the final leg. One of them would yield an $11,983 consolation payoff because another other live ticket used the same horse. But Tsavo had lost his only two starts by 17 and 21 lengths and was 6-1 in the morning line and he was paying the whole pool. Appell liked him because he thought the colt would improve by moving from dirt to grass.

Other handicappers evidently saw virtues in Tsavo, too. Money poured onto him and by post time he was the 8-5 favorite. No bettor could ask more than to be alive for $488,000 with a hot favorite.

But after Tsavo crossed the finish line, the winners’ joy lasted only a few minutes. When the race was official and the payoffs were posted, Kennedy and Appell stared with disbelief at their respective television screens and saw that the Super Pick Five had paid $11,983. Kennedy went to his TwinSpires account and confirmed that this was the amount of his win – not $488,000.

Kennedy phoned Louisiana Downs and was told that another ticket had been sold on the combination at Arlington Park, but he couldn’t get a clear explanation. "Everybody was blowing me off and telling me to grin and bear it," he said.

Travis Stone, who doubles as Louisiana Downs’ mutuels director and track announcer, investigated the payoff and found the explanation later that night.

Like most similar exotic wagers, the rules governing the Super Pick Five specify that, in the event of a late scratch, a player’s selection is transferred to the post-time favorite. There had been no late scratches in the ninth race, but two horses had been withdrawn at normal scratch time, about 11 a.m., hours before the Louisiana Downs card had begun. Stone learned that the other winning ticket on the pick five had been bought at Chicago’s Arlington Park at 8:21 a.m., and the lone selection in the final leg was a 30-1 shot who wound up being scratched. This horse was replaced by the post-time favorite, Tsavo.

The data fed from tote companies to racetracks cannot reflect this information, because their computers don’t know who the post-time favorite will be. Stone said, "If we’d known [all of the circumstances], we wouldn’t have shown the probable payoffs." Indeed, that’s the practice at most tracks. Stone was sympathetic about the anguish that the incorrect information had caused.

"I don’t think I’ve ever heard a horseplayer having a tougher beat," he said.

Sympathy didn’t mollify Kennedy and Appell.

"I don’t believe that anybody would have bought a ticket at 8 in the morning and singled the 5 horse," Appell said. "This is so typical of the industry. It’s not policed. I’ve been playing the horses since grade school, but I think I’m done. This is no fun."

Appell is correct that something is wrong with this scenario – and it is the very existence of jackpot wagers that pay out the whole pool only to one winning ticket. They have proliferated because of the success of Gulfstream Park’s jackpot Rainbow 6, but nobody in the industry seems to care that they are a rip-off of the betting public and that the rules governing them – particularly those involving scratches – have not been well thought out.

At Louisiana Downs, the track takes 25 percent off the top of each day’s Super Pick Five pool, and 50 percent of the remainder goes into the jackpot. This adds up to a 62.5 percent takeout. Except for the one person who eventually wins the jackpot, every other bettor is playing for 37.5 percent of the pool – an abominable gambling proposition. By contrast, handicappers playing the conventional pick five at Del Mar can bet into a pool of more than $500,000 while paying a 14 percent takeout.

It is not only these percentages that make jackpot wagers unattractive; the randomness of the one-winner-take-all format makes them a bad bet, too. It’s very possible that the bettor at Arlington Park was playing his telephone number or a lucky number – his choice in the last race is otherwise inexplicable – that, for Kennedy and Appell, transformed a great handicapping triumph into sheer torment.

© 2013 The Washington Post

Richard Santiago More than 1 year ago
Jackpots are sucker bets, pure and simple.
Alan Grant More than 1 year ago
Is a betting window open at Arlington at 8:21 AM? That part sounds sketchy. I once bet a P3 at SA before early scratches. My horse was an early scratch in 3rd leg, post time favorite won and I was denied P3 win with bet refunded. The bettors should hire an investigator/attorney to get the bet info from Arlington. The early bet scenario is questionable.
jodonnell17 More than 1 year ago
WOW---
Richard Heffner More than 1 year ago
from 6-1 to 8-5 somethings up!
Ster Meyer More than 1 year ago
Amazing!
John More than 1 year ago
i play w a guy at del mar, and i gave him some cash for the pk 5. he played a 480 ticket at L DOWNs and only 144 at Del Mar. Del Mar paid 100,000+ that day. L DOWNS 4,500$. jack hole
Andy Dean More than 1 year ago
Reminds me of the brilliant scam that was exposed when I played the dogs in Miami back in the 70s. Sports Illustrated even had an article about it called "Win, Place, Sting". You might be able to find it in Sports Illustrated archives; it's a great read, full of intrigue, major and bit players, a bulldog district attorney, time deadlines, law enforcement jurisdiction issues, and eventual incarceration of the mastermind for a short holiday in a country club "prison". He had to have stashed away bundles b/c he'd been doing it for years and the only reason he was caught was the original on site computer operator retired and the replacement choked. But you gotta love this one (sarcasm). This is Louisiana after all. And the lone ticket was bought in CHICAGO of all places!?! Now there's not now, nor has there ever been, any corruption going on in Chicago right?!? ;) I'd get a lawyer.
Joe Masterson More than 1 year ago
When a business is built solely on gambling... and the regulators and rules are always questionable... VOILA!
Phil C More than 1 year ago
I still want my money I put into the Breeders' Cup notorious pick 6 cheat of several years back at Arlington. That money was not paid out, nor was it carried over. What happened to that money?
Ryan Cale More than 1 year ago
it was paid out to all the people who had 5-out-of-6.
Michael More than 1 year ago
I hope their is no cheating involved and it was just bet's not showing up in the payoff's.