12/22/2015 12:38PM

Crist: Pick five has room to grow even more

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The first five races at Aqueduct on Dec. 18 were a dreary quintet, with just 34 horses contesting four maiden races and a $10,000 claimer. Yet they commanded the attention of horseplayers from coast to coast, who wagered a record $1.2 million on the pick five that day, more than the bet attracted on Belmont Stakes Day and six times the usual pool for a Friday afternoon at The Big A.

The reason was an unprecedented carryover in the pick five, a bet that debuted in New York at the 2013 Belmont Park fall meeting. It took 27 months and more than 500 cards for no one to hit the 50-cent-minimum wager. When it finally happened, the results were enlightening on two fronts, not only illustrating the power of carryovers and low-minimum, low-takeout bets but also revealing some shortcomings in the rules governing the wager.

The scene was set the day before, when three extreme longshots created the carryover despite small fields and victories by 3-2 and 2-1 shots. The two five-horse fields in the sequence, however, yielded $63.50 and $30 winners, and only five of the nine runners in the finale were covered. When sixth choice Because I’m Happy prevailed at $29.80, New York had its first pick five carryover. The entire net pool, reduced by 15 percent takeout from $191,605 to $162,253, was carried over to Friday.

There also was a pick six carryover of $21,092 for Friday, but few noticed. That pool attracted just $93,473 in Friday wagers, while the novel pick five carryover drew an astounding $1,229,447, nearly eight times the carryover. The entire world stayed alive early as a $5.20 favorite took the opener and a $2.80 layover romped in the second. The final three winners paid $10, $21.20, and $9.80, an only mildly tricky sequence of winners that combined for a payoff of $3,952 for $2, or $988 for 50 cents – more than twice the parlay.

It also appears that the excitement surrounding the Friday pool carried over to the weekend. Last Saturday, the pick five handled $337,507, a 17 percent increase from the previous Saturday. On Sunday, the pool was $348,627, a 40 percent increase over the previous Sunday’s $247,838.

The customers’ enthusiasm for the pick five seems to be a function of affordability and perceived value. With a 50-cent instead of $2 minimum and one fewer race, the pick five costs roughly one-tenth as much as a pick six play providing similar coverage. A $64 or $96 investment has a real chance to pay off in the pick five, whereas a similarly modest play in the pick six usually just feeds the whales in the pool.

Also, the low 15 percent takeout inflates the already-generous payoffs that routinely result from spreading a 15 percent takeout over five races. While the pick six takeout rises from 15 percent to 25 percent when there is a carryover, the pick five remains at 15 percent at all times.

The one sour note was that those who picked four of five right in Thursday’s impossible sequence deserved a medal but received absolutely nothing in the way of consolation. This is a deficiency in the way the rules for the bet were written more than two years ago and is completely inconsistent with every other bet on the menu. How can you pay people for going 4 for 6 in the pick six, which happened Thursday, while giving nothing to those who go 4 for 5 in the pick five? It is the only parimutuel event in New York, and perhaps anywhere else, where 100 percent of a post-takeout pool is held for a carryover and not a penny is paid back to the public that day.

The New York Racing Association was aware of the shortcomings of the rule, but fixing it has not been a high priority given that there had never been a carryover in its two years of existence. A change is in order for the next time there’s a carryover, and NYRA shouldn’t stop there: Why not a consolation 4-of-5 payout every day?

Other tracks do it, including Gulfstream and Keeneland, and it does nothing but good for both the track and its customers. Providing a reward for those who go 4 for 5 can only boost player morale, improve churn, and reduce Internal Revenue Service reporting requirements and withholding taxes. Providing a consolation payout will provide intermittent reinforcement while improving players’ cash flow and should attract and retain more players in the long run.

As last week’s carryover proved, the pick five has captured bettors’ attention as an affordable way to play a multirace sequence. Consolation payoffs can only make it more appealing and help it continue to grow.