Updated on 09/18/2011 1:14AM

Belmont pick six snafu poorly handled


NEW YORK - When a well-meant first-time starter named T Harry thundered down the stretch to win the narrowest of photo-finishes in the fourth race Friday at Belmont Park, it should have been a thrilling start to a parimutuel rarity: a three-day pick six carryover, the first in New York since last winter, with $456,860 in the kitty and another $1 million likely to pour in.

Instead, it was just another reason for horseplayers to tear out their hair and consider a new hobby.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Belmont officials had made the unprecedented decision to cancel the pick six for Friday's card and carry the $456,860 into the stakes-laden Super Saturday program. The reason? A satellite uplink problem with Verizon had blacked out the Belmont signal from being broadcast anywhere beyond New York City. Post times had already been delayed for 30 minutes. There was concern that without a picture and odds feed, some outlets might not accept the bet and players would have erratic or insufficient information.

So Belmont cancelled the pick six and, of course, five minutes later the signal was back up, well before the delayed post time for the fourth. The entire episode was unnecessary and infuriated players from coast to coast who had invested many hours and dollars in the enterprise. The timing made the decision to cancel look overly cautious and premature at best, and fueled the suspicions of cynics who believe the track welcomed the opportunity to move the carryover to its premier card of the fall meeting.

"I just had a guy call me up and scream at me that we did this on purpose, but that's just crazy," said Bill Nader, the track's chief operating officer. "Why would we do that? We don't want to have a huge carryover on a day like [Saturday] with small fields and big favorites any more than you do. We saw this as a fairness issue.

"Without the signal, our handle on the first three races was off 52 percent from a week ago. We don't know if people couldn't bet or wouldn't bet, but this seemed the fair thing to do. Look, the first leg was a maiden claiming race won by a firster who was bet down to 4-1. How loudly would people be screaming if they'd played the pick six and hadn't been able to see that?"

Probably no more loudly than they were after watching perfectly logical horses win most of the races after three previous cards of baffling results. Many of them, however, breathed a huge sigh of relief when the day's universal single, 2-5 Montauk Daisy in the third leg, was caught in deep stretch by a tough-to-like 29-1 shot named Morning Gallop (who would have knocked me out.) Of course somewhere there is a pick six player who actually liked Morning Gallop and watched helplessly as his chance for a six-figure payday went up in smoke.

There are three problems here that need to be addressed going forward to prevent something like this from ever happening again: communications, betting statutes, and technology.

At the very least, the track should have made repeated, apologetic announcements explaining the situation. Instead, the pick six option simply disappeared from wagering menus across the country, taking even the track's own mutuel clerks and phone-betting operators by surprise. Once the signal went back up, the issue and the thinking behind it were never addressed beyond a press release.

Another reason for the cancellation was the belief that some jurisdictions technically prohibit taking bets on races if no signal is provided. Track officials were still researching this issue Friday evening, but if such antiquated statutes exist they should be eliminated or modified to provide for emergency situations like this one. The idea that a national betting pool has to be cancelled because of one or two conflicting local ordinances is absurd.

On the technical front, obviously there needs to be better backup systems for disseminating vital information when a single uplink cable goes down. Both tote and video information can easily be transmitted over the Internet, and there have to be redundant systems in place. If there's another Verizon problem on Breeders' Cup Day, is the industry going to cancel all the betting?

Perhaps the worst offense committed against bettors Friday was that anyone who put in his pick six tickets before the cancellation was unable to get a refund until the end of the day. According to Nader, this is the way all three major tote companies' software is written and there was no button that could be pushed to release the customers' money. The idea that a track can't even give people their money back, several hours after frustrating them by canceling a bet, is absolutely appalling and demands an immediate fix regardless of the cost.

It also is yet another sign of how amateurish and primitive the wagering technology remains in a business with a $15 billion annual handle, four years after the Fix Six scandal first revealed its many shortcomings.