10/15/2003 11:00PM

To bettors, the most important issue

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WASHINGTON - When the field broke from the starting gate in the Maryland Million Lassie, the filly Richetta was 2-1 on the tote board. As she stalked the leaders on the backstretch, she was still 2-1. After running a half-mile, she surged to take command, and at that moment the tote board blinked and the odds on Richetta plunged to 6-5. Bettors at Laurel Park who had expected to collect a win payoff of $6 or more were rewarded with $4.60 instead.

For years, horseplayers have grumbled about such late drops in odds on winning horses. But most bettors have no way to communicate their concerns to the racing industry. And the industry has not made much of an effort to listen to its customers.

But when the Breeders' Cup pick-six scandal jolted the sport last fall, leaders of the industry recognized that they had to restore the shaken confidence of their customers. One of their steps was to create the Players' Panel, a board consisting mostly of serious gamblers, to examine and report on issues about which horseplayers care.

Members of the Players' Panel made their first public appearance at an industry conference in Las Vegas recently and talked about some of the subjects they are addressing: customer services, takeout rates, and the presentation of simulcasts. But of all the issues of concern to horseplayers, one is paramount. When Jim Quinn, moderator of the Players' Panel, was asked about the most important issue facing the group, he replied without hesitation: "The integrity of the pools." Even though the Breeders' Cup scandal is history and the perpetrators have gone to jail, the betting public still doubts the honesty of the nation's parimutuel wagering system.

"All customers have seen unacceptably late drops in odds after the races have begun," said Quinn, a Californian who is a prolific author of books on handicapping. "These drops create a widespread perception that sophisticated players are past-posting [i.e., betting after the races have begun]. It's an insidious problem."

Most gamblers disbelieve the assurances of the industry leaders that it is impossible to place a wager after a race has begun. Horseplayers remember all too clearly the immediate aftermath of the Breeders' Cup, when tote-company officials and others denied anyone could have entered a wager on the pick six after some of the races had been run. The members of the Players' Panel are anything but industry stooges. I have known some of them for decades, and they are as cynical, suspicious, and conscious of larceny as their brethren in the racetrack grandstands of America. As they have examined late changes in odds, many have come to the conclusion that the main problem is inefficiency and not larceny.

"The system just doesn't work," said Paul Cornman, a Las Vegas-based handicapper who has focused on this issue for the Players' Panel. The system is an extremely complex one, linking offtrack betting sites, "hubs" that process their bets, and the racetracks themselves. And it's a painfully slow system that recalculates odds every 30 to 45 seconds.

"Every cycle takes the same amount of time," Cornman said. "If the last cycle ended just before the betting closed, you wait 45 seconds till you see the final odds. And there can be unusual delays in the last cycle. At Belmont one Sunday, a horse on the lead went from 14-1 to 9-1 55 seconds after the betting closed."

To some extent, the public's observation and suspicion of these late drops involves selective memory. If a horse plunges from 2-1 to 6-5 in the last flash and wins, the whole racetrack notices it and buzzes about it. But if a horse's price rises from 15-1 to 18-1 during the race and he wins, nobody notices. When a winner's odds plummet, is it a random occurrence, or are wise guys responsible?

Cornman has concluded that wise guys are indeed responsible - but not because they are cheating. He said two or three individuals or syndicates are using sophisticated computer programs to analyze races, look for overlays, and bet directly into the parimutuel systems. They wait as late as possible to make their calculations before wagering enormous sums that can knock odds askew at even the nation's biggest tracks. Moreover, Cornman observed, "The computer guys are very speed-oriented." They frequently make wagers on front-runners, generating the suspicions that arise when a horse's odds plunge after he has dashed to the lead.

Even if these late changes in odds are not larcenous, their impact on the betting public is profound and disturbing nevertheless. Playing the horses always has involved calculations of risk vs. reward; a horse who is a reasonable bet at 2-1 may be a bad play at 6-5. A handicapper can't make a rational judgment if he doesn't know the odds until midrace.

The members of the Players' Panel understand this issue well, and they will make formal recommendations to the industry in the coming months. The industry itself is belatedly addressing the inadequacy of its wagering systems and pressing the tote companies to upgrade their technology - something that is expected to happen in 2004. By forcing these changes and spurring the creation of the Players' Panel, the pick-six fixers may inadvertently have done racing fans a great favor.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post