07/05/2007 12:00AM

Big jackpots are racing's best stimulant


WASHINGTON - It is easy to cite evidence that American Thoroughbred racing is in moribund condition. Attendance at great tracks is often pathetic; when 3,000 people rattle around cavernous Belmont Park, the atmosphere is dispiriting. Public interest and media coverage of the sport has dwindled for all but a few big races.

But anyone who paid attention to the events at Hollywood Park on Monday - as most horseplayers did - would come to a different conclusion about the health of the racing industry. Bettors wagered a record $7.59 million on the pick six and a total of $18.4omillion on a routine eight-race program - figures that would have been inconceivable in an era when the sport was supposedly healthier. The excitement had been building for four days, as bettors failed to hit the pick six, and the carryover jackpot grew exponentially. When an impossible-looking 85-1 shot eliminated almost everyone's hopes for a perfect ticket Sunday, the jackpot reached $3.2 million. For any horseplayer with a pulse, Monday's pick six was irresistible.

Handicappers from coast to coast pored over the past performances for the six races. TVG, the horse racing television network and betting company, devoted more than five hours of air time to the pick six alone. Most online and telephone wagering companies e-mailed their customers to alert them to the existence of the carryover. Everybody was preoccupied by the same thought. When I phoned Hollywood Park's public relations director, Mike Mooney, in midafternoon to get some information about the pick six, he answered, "Hi, Andy, are you alive?" And when I talked to track president Jack Liebau, one of the first sentences out of his mouth was a dejected, "I'm not alive."

Even Hollywood's officials were stunned by the betting totals. Monday's wagering on the pick six eclipsed the record set at the 1988 Breeders' Cup. The total pick-six pool, with Monday's wagers plus the carryover, was a record-smashing $10.87 million. At least some of the six races had looked deceptively simple on paper, but they were filled with surprises, and when an 18-1 shot captured the final leg in a photo finish, the pick six returned $576,064.40 each to 13 winning ticket-holders (picking five winners earned a consolation payout of $2,240).

The events at Hollywood ought to teach a valuable lesson to everyone in the U.S. racing industry. Many people in the sport are still consumed by nostalgia for the era when crowds of 50,000 packed America's great tracks, bet to win, place, and show, and cheered for Thoroughbred heroes such as Kelso and Forego. Virtually every track has a marketing department that is dedicated to offering promotions and giveaways that will lure large crowds on special days. Television ads for the sport invariably show crowds of well-scrubbed fans jumping up and down as they cheer for a winner.

Instead of trying to re-create the good old days, racetracks ought to think more intelligently about the good new days, when simulcasting and various forms of wagering from the home enable the creation of mammoth betting pools and the excitement that goes along with them.

The tracks in California have aggressively tried to foster these big pools. Hollywood Park's racing secretary, Martin Panza, conceived the idea of the guaranteed pool - promising that, on special days, $1 million would be in the pot for the pick six or the track would make up the difference. Guarantees have proved to be an effective way to boost betting, and they almost never cost the track a dime.

The California tracks also put together their racing cards to increase the chances of a carryover. Hollywood's program on Sunday included a Grade 2 stakes race with a five-horse field and a 1-5 favorite. The track carded it as the third race to keep it out of the pick six, a decision that made possible the big pool on Monday.

"We put the most competitive races in the pick six, and we don't apologize for it," Liebau said.

At almost every other track, though, tradition would have forbidden running an important stakes as the third race. Tracks need to be less tradition-bound and more creative in making an effort to foster big pools. Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park have the potential to develop Hollywood-sized pick sixes, and they could jump-start the growth of a carryover by offering a daily guaranteed pool of $25,000 or $50,000.

Smaller tracks could try some innovations to stimulate big payoffs. Colonial Downs and Laurel Park both installed huge turf courses that permit them to run fields of 14 (or more). Why not card a wide-open race with a full field and offer a $50,000 guarantee on a superfecta wager?

Except for the guaranteed pick-six pools and the creation of the Magna Five (a wager encompassing five races and three different tracks), the sport hasn't made many important betting innovations in recent years. Too many leaders of the industry barely acknowledge that they are in the gambling business. But Hollywood's phenomenal pick six ought to demonstrate the importance of developing the right gambling products. Nothing can stimulate customer excitement and racetrack business more than a bet offering a potential seven-figure payoff.

(c) 2007 The Washington Post