08/04/2014 11:50AM

Bergman: Automated morning line has limitations

Bettors react to the morning line and actual odds when wagering.

When Harley Momma opened at 8-5 odds on the tote board for Saturday’s Hambletonian Oaks it raised eyebrows. From the press box above there was confusion and at the same time speculation of what great value there would be.

Odds have a way of impacting human behavior and whether they are from the morning line or from the initial bets that arrive in the pool for the first time, they are images that trigger action and reaction. Some smart, some not so.

The morning line, at least for as long as I can remember, was supposed to be a guideline for those placing wagers to use in making bets. For the most part it was just an early indicator of what the bettor could expect should he wish to place a bet. Will he get an 8-1 return or an 8-5 return on his investment, should he choose to actually place a bet?

As the Harley Momma example will reflect, shocking the public with something that appears to be outrageous has a profound impact on the way wagering decisions will be made.

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The treatment of the morning line has undergone some changes recently, and while it’s too early to make predictions how the public will embrace them, it’s not too early to recognize that just like humans, computers have limitations.

I was somewhat shocked to see the morning line for Sunday’s (August 3) Empire Breeders Classic elimination race at Tioga Downs. The race drew two of the premier 3-year-olds in North America. It wasn’t a shock that after securing the rail, the computer pegged Meadowlands Pace winner He’s Watching as the 9-5 favorite. More of a shock was the fact that the computer pegged $1 million North America Cup winner J K Endofanera as a 9-2 proposition, a co-third choice in a field of seven with just six betting entities.

Again, without knowing what the computer is programmed to do, it’s impossible to find flaws in the logic that allowed it to make this glaring error. At the same time, one must recognize that a computer can only be guided by what it is programmed to accomplish and perhaps in this case, and some others we’ve witnessed, there is information that is not be assessed properly.

Perhaps of greater concern to the betting public is the wish by some in the industry to make it the job of the morning line to suggest “competitive fields” when in fact that is not the case.

Some examples I’ve seen of the computerized morning line has lumped a large field together will multiple 9-2, 6-1 or 7-1 odds in an individual race. While it would be great if we could turn back the clock to create actual races where the final odds were as balanced as the morning line, facts bear out differently in today’s environment.

Whether we’re looking at computer error, or human error, as witnessed almost nightly at most tracks, we have to ask the question what is the proper roll of the morning line?

Is it to bunch all horses together to give the appearance of competition?

Is it to accurately give a guideline so that bettors can wager with some assurance of price?

Is it to give a full reflection of what the actual odds will be at post time?

Whether it’s the morning line, or the first lines that show up after initial bets are made, it is clear the public uses the odds as a factor in reaching decisions.

It’s hard to make a critical judgment about the effects of accuracy in the morning line whether it is man or computer made. There are some who believe all would be better served if there were no morning line at all. For sure that would be the only way there could be “un-biased” activity on the part of the racetrack.

To me, the 8-5 opening line on Harley Momma would have a lot less meaning if the handicapper wasn’t able to juxtapose that number with the 15-1 morning line given by the track oddsmaker.

As someone who made the morning line for both Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceway programs, it is a job that no matter how one is compensated was not rewarding in the least. It’s an effort that comes with no cheerleaders and a host of angry critics when mistakes in assessment are made.

I ran into one person at the Meadowlands on Saturday that was happy with the computerized morning line because he was convinced that a human could purposefully alter the morning line for nefarious betting purposes. The argument I believe was fostered by the opinion that a line maker could in fact wave a magic wand over all bettors and get the price of his choice if he just named it.

This logic is of course preposterous as every morning line oddsmaker I have ever seen do a competent job was in fact someone who understood wagering because it was something they did with regularity.

In today’s multi-race betting environment many handicappers take short cuts. They may take time to map out the first or second legs of a Pick-4 or Pick-5, but very often find themselves keying morning line favorites in the later legs of the wager. This has become apparent to those I know who routinely favor the Pick -4 or Pick-5 bets. Their “angle” is to find an improperly tagged horse in the last legs and take advantage to achieve a better than expected payoff. Since multi-race wagers offer no tote boards to monitor the odds, the bettor has to presume wagering value and often does so using the morning line.

Any morning line can lead some people in a direction. If we are truly in search of something that works perfectly and has no bias we should totally eliminate the morning line.

If we’re going to go with the computerized model, there are still some major kinks that need to be worked out.

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