01/22/2008 12:00AM

Big jackpot bets deserve a long look


TUCSON, Ariz. - Not too many racing ideas emanate from Wall Street, but one caught the eye of Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York last week, and he slipped it into his budget message.

The sharp minds of New York's financial district, a high-IQ area that in recent years has produced some very sophisticated and savvy big bettors in the sport, noted what track operators know painfully but have done little about.

They pointed out that the New York state lottery is underperforming, largely because it has not widened its base of patronage.

That also happens to be racing's biggest problem.

The Wall Streeters suggested that if the Starbucks patrons of the state are willing and able to pop for four bucks for a cup of coffee, they most likely would toss a few bucks into the lottery pot if the means were made available to them. They suggest that the coffee shops and bars of the country are fertile fields for lottery expansion.

Of course they are, and Spitzer suggested that New York give private entrepreneurs the opportunity to cultivate that field. He is willing to privatize the state lottery, or a large part of it.

While Americans in general believe that we as a nation think of everything first, facts belie that idea. So did this week's events in Sweden.

The pool on the V64 wager - pick the winners of six consecutive races - at Stockholm's Solvalla track Wednesday was worth $3.7 million U.S.

The pool on the V75 - pick seven consecutive races - on Saturday carries a pool of $18 million U.S.

Both events are worth that much because of carryovers from pools that did not meet minimum payout requirements set by the Swedish government. There also are payouts for picking fewer consecutive winners, but they, too, failed to meet the government standard.

The V75 is the most popular horse racing bet in the world, based on pool size. It accounts for 40 percent of total parimutuel wagering in Sweden, and has grown at an annual rate of 10 percent for the last five years.

Before the shouting of "Yes, but . . ." begins, let the record show an understanding of the vast differences in betting opportunities between Sweden and the United States.

Sweden has 2,030 betting shops and 3,800 cash-register terminals in supermarkets, and takes bets via the website of ATG, the organization that controls Thoroughbred and harness race betting in the country. The V75 not only is Sweden's biggest betting product, but also can be bet in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Estonia, Australia, Malta, and, yes, in the United States. The Meadowlands, Monmouth Park, and Freehold Raceway offer it in New Jersey, Delaware Park in Delaware, and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway in New York.

It has not caught on yet at those tracks, understandably. Bettors do not know the horses, trainers, drivers, or the Swedish tracks involved. But they do know what $18 million looks like, or can do.

In Sweden, the V75 races are held on Saturdays, the V64 on Wednesdays. Advance betting starts on the V75 on Wednesdays and closes at the end of racing on Friday. Advance bets on the V64 start on Monday and remain open until first post on Wednesday.

So what's the point of all this, since Sweden and the U.S. are a racing world apart?

Next month in Florida, the owners and operators of 90 North American tracks, members of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America, hold their joint annual meeting. Their tracks stretch from Quebec City in the east to Vancouver in the west in Canada, and from Bangor in Maine to Del Mar in California. They could, with work, develop a multiple pool of their own, combining both breeds and rotating tracks. Where there are regulatory stumbling blocks, the increased realization by racing commissioners that something significant needs to be done to untie the hands of track operators offers hope.

The Magna Five leads the way with a bet on races from five Magna tracks, and there also is a Bal-Cal double, combining races the same night from Balmoral Park in Crete, Ill., south of Chicago, and Sacramento Harness Racing at Cal-Expo in California. The lack of success of these bets does not mean they cannot be expanded into a giant pool and work. The thunderous success of the multistate lotteries and the Swedish pools show the way.

Track Topics, the weekly newsletter of Harness Tracks of America, endorsing the idea of a nationwide pool and urging its discussion at the upcoming meeting, has a suggestion. Its headline reads, "Before You Say It Can't Be Done, Give A Little Thought To How We Might Do It."