Updated on 09/17/2011 9:42AM

Beleaguered bettors need assurance


WASHINGTON - Since the Breeders' Cup Pick Six scandal erupted, horseplayers have been keenly aware of suspiciously low payoffs and late changes in odds, fearing that more cheaters have found a way to corrupt the parimutuel system. Most such concerns are based on sheer paranoia. But any knowledgeable fan who saw the results of the pick four on opening day at Gulfstream Park would readily conclude that something was rotten in the state of Florida.

A friend telephoned me after the race and said, "There's only one explanation for this payoff. This had to be dishonest. I'm not going to bet another pick four at Gulfstream."

I suspect that bettors from coast to coast shared the same opinion.

Not one of the four races was won by an easy or obvious pick. The first winner paid $25.80. The next race produced a dead heat between a 13-1 shot and a 3-1 shot. First Blush scored a $25.80 surprise in the Spectacular Bid Stakes, and the final winner paid $7.40.

What should the pick four have paid? The usual standard is the value of a four-horse parlay. Although the dead heat complicates this calculation, the parlay should have been worth around $4,300. But such wagers almost always pay more than the parlay when there are no solid favorites among the winners, and it would not have been surprising if Friday's pick four had paid $10,000 or more.

It paid $864.20.

This anomaly might have gone unnoticed by Gulfstream's management, but for the fact that a professional bettor knew the track's controller, Frank Trigeiro, and phoned him about the suspicious payoff. Trigeiro immediately inquired where the tickets had been sold, expecting to learn that the transaction had come from some rogue offshore off-track betting operation. He learned otherwise. Of $159 bet on the winning combination, $150 had been wagered at Gulfstream.

A single bettor held all of the tickets - and had bought them 15 minutes before post time. This was no scam like the Breeders' Cup fix, where the crooks had altered wagers after some of the races had been run.

The gambler had played a $50 pick four ticket using multiple horses, including both of the dead-heaters, which gave him the equivalent of a $100 winning ticket. He had also made another $50 play that duplicated some of the combinations on his first ticket, and hit with that one, too. The man is known to be a wild, high-rolling gambler, not a larcenous insider.

If he possessed inside information he would surely have played other exotic wagers as well, but there was nothing suspicious about the payoffs in the pick threes and the daily double encompassing the same races. The handicapper might have been lucky or might have been smart, but the wager that netted him $64,815 was legitimate.

Yet the events at Gulfstream underscore many of the problems that the industry faces in the aftermath of the Breeders' Cup. Bettors are understandably worried about the sport's integrity, and many of them were left with the impression that the Gulfstream pick four was crooked - even though that was not the case.

Bettors understand that the most racetrack management teams are oblivious to questionable circumstances such as the pick four payoffs. The sport desperately needs a system that red-flags suspicious transactions.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association recently hired Giuliani Associates, working with Ernst and Young, to assess the security systems of U.S. racetracks. What they ought to do is to develop a software package, usable by any track, that will point out bets that look suspicious: pick fours and pick sixes that pay less than half the parlay price; exactas that pay less than half the "rule of thumb" (win price times the place price of the second finisher); odds that drop in half in the last two minutes before post time; cancellations of large wagers in the final minutes of wagering. The racetrack then can delve into the necessary records to learn the details of the wager.

But this is not enough. Even if tracks quietly look into the details of a suspicious wager and determine that it is kosher - as happened at Gulfstream - the customers don't know it and their doubts about the integrity of the game continue to fester. The sport needs some mechanism for a dialogue between fans and the industry. If a bettor is disgruntled after seeing Mustang Jock win at Aqueduct after his odds drop from 8-1 to 5-2 in the last minute of wagering, he should be able to ask "What happened?" and get an honest answer. The sport should have an ombudsman who can take inquiries from the public, get the answers from racetracks, and perhaps publish the questions and answers in Daily Racing Form.

In the vast majority of cases, suspicious betting patterns are not larcenous at all - as in the case of the Gulfstream pick four. But the sport has to prove this to its customers.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post