07/14/2004 11:00PM

Betting thrills at the drop of a dime

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NEW YORK - Racing likes to think of itself as a highly affordable gambling game, with most minimum bets a mere dollar and a wide range of wagering pools from which to choose. In reality, though, some of the most appealing types of bets require buying so many combinations to have a fighting chance that the minimums may be too high by a factor of as much as 10.

Ten cents a bet? The idea here is not to permit 10-cent show bets, but to offer multi-horse boxes and part-wheels in extremely low denominations. This could open up the world of super-exotic betting to many ordinary players who currently can't afford to participate, or are forced into playing too small a number of combinations to collect more than once in a blue moon.

A well-heeled bettor can get to a vexing race with a full field and cast a wide net while making an entertaining action bet at the $1 increment. It may not be the smartest or most precise bet in the world, but there's no law against having fun at the racetrack. He might box five horses in a superfecta for $120 or seven of them in the trifecta for $210. He might look at three tough upcoming races and make a $1 pick three part-wheel going 4x5x8 for $160.

(No doubt there are racing and wagering purists who are horrified to hear such careless and scattershot wagering takes place. Get over it, and thank us for funding your game.)

It is a rather low percentage of the customer base, however, that can afford to make $120, $160, or $210 throwaway bets for the fun of it. But what if those same wagers were only $12, $16, or $21? Admit it, if you could make the occasional seven-horse tri-box for a mere $21, you'd be up there yourself asking for the old 1-3-6-8-11-13-14 box to get out for the day on the last race.

Of course, if it came in 8-14-6 and the tri paid a whopping $2,800 for $2, you wouldn't get a four-digit return. At a 10-cent base bet - you're buying 210 combinations at a dime apiece for your $21 - you would get one-twentieth of that payout, or $140. And if the 8, 14, and 6 were boring favorites and the tri came back only $240 for $2, you'd collect just $12 and lose $9 for the race.

That's a lot of action for $21, though, and far more entertaining than betting $7 across the board on one horse or trying to shave down the race to three or four contenders, since your final throwout is a cinch to nose you out for third at the wire. People would cash more often and feel very smart for hitting $2,800 trifectas, even if they got just $140 back.

Dime bets would be most useful in superfectas, which would be the right place for some forward-thinking track to experiment with them. Superfectas are a highly underutilized pool throughout racing, because they are so expensive for even careless and well-funded horseplayers, much less those trying to have some fun for around $20. A mere six-horse superfecta box, which is still far from offering any level of confidence, costs $360 at the $1 level. A 4x5x6x7 part-wheel costs $256. Move the decimal point one place to the left, though, and it starts to look like an appealing cheap thrill.

You wouldn't want to reduce the minimums on bets with carryovers, such as the pick six or place nine, because carryovers drive these bets, and there wouldn't be any if the unit were just a dime. But why is it a good thing that so many superfectas have just one or two winners who can afford to hit the "all" button for third and fourth?

An important ancillary benefit of dime bets would be the virtual elimination of the punitive and asinine tax reporting and withholding requirements that take tens of millions of dollars out of circulation each year while driving players away from exotic pools or out of the game altogether. The $5,200 trifecta payout that currently triggers almost $1,500 in withholding would remain untouched if it paid $260 for a dime.

Dime bets would not only spice up a dull Thursday afternoon, but would also provide easier entr?e to new occasional participants on the sport's biggest days. Having 14-horse fields in most Breeders' Cup races and up to 20 in the Derby means that very few people who want to participate in an exotic bet on those races can afford more than a few stabs. If they could buy hundreds of trifecta or superfecta combinations at a thin dime apiece, they would have a lot more fun, cash a lot more often, and just might be tempted to come back next Thursday.

How could it hurt to try?