10/09/2014 2:29PM

Crist: Players may not warm to Coast-to-Coast Double

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Horseplayers who prefer multirace wagers, the pari-mutuel wagering industry’s lone growth sector in recent years, have repeatedly made their preferences clear by voting with their wallets. They want many-legged bets with low takeouts, low minimums, and a chance for a payoff of more than $500.

So, what new bet are they being offered this week by the braintrusts of the sport’s two biggest circuits? A Belmont-Santa Anita “Cross-Country Double,” a two-legged bet with a high takeout, a high minimum, and virtually no chance of paying more than $500. In other words, the customers are being offered exactly what they don’t want.

The poor old daily double has emerged as the focus of Santa Anita’s fall-meet marketing to customers. Even before the new two-track bet – which will link the last race at Belmont with, confusingly, sometimes the fourth race and other times the fifth at Santa Anita – was announced Thursday, Santa Anita had announced a new $100,000 guarantee on its own late double each day.

“For many years, the daily double was an extremely popular wager here in California,” said Tom Ludt, the track president. “With a guaranteed pool of $100,000 to shoot at, we’re confident this will generate significant interest in our late races.”

Seriously? Let’s look at the “interest” in Santa Anita’s late races on its biggest day so far this year, the Sept. 27 card with four Grade 1 races. Customers bet $325,219 on the pick six covering the six late races and $774,284 on the pick four covering the last four. Did a “guaranteed” daily double that attracted all of $149,832, just about 1.1 percent of the day’s handle, generate significant interest?

That pool also is well below half of what was wagered in the pick five covering the day’s first five races – a 50-cent-minimum bet with a 15 percent takeout. That pick five paid $142,736 for $2 or $35,684.15 for 50 cents. The late double paid $13.80. I wonder which payoff fired the imagination of players and inspired them to try again tomorrow.

There was a time when the double was exciting and exotic. Really. The bet, which dates back to at least 1931 at Ottawa’s Connaught Park and was first offered at Santa Anita in 1961, for decades was the only available wager other than win, place, and show. It was called the “daily” double because there was only one on each card, and you had to make it out to the old horse park five minutes before first post if you wanted to play it.

Perhaps the irrational nostalgia for the bet comes because it summons up a time when racetracks were full of men in hats on weekdays. Therefore, the thinking seems to be, if we make the double a big deal again, the track will fill up. By this reasoning, if they gave away hats, the game would soar to new heights.

If we’re really going back to less-exotic days, how about trying another hallmark of simpler times: The takeout back then was 10 percent. One reason fans have reacted critically to the new “Cross-Country” bet is that it uses Santa Anita’s 20 percent daily-double takeout rate instead of Belmont’s 18.5 percent rate, vigorish in excess of the 15 percent used for the pick fives at both tracks. At a time when players are more takeout-sensitive than ever and already up in arms about some recent increases, it seems especially tone-deaf to hub the bet in the jurisdiction with the higher takeout.

Rather than trying to promote a high-takeout, low-return bet, tracks should be paying more attention to the way they are arranging their races for the existing multirace wagers that people actually like and play. Southern California has long offered a chaotic and baffling maiden claimer, chock-full with first-time starters, as the last race of the day. It’s a cynical and customer-unfriendly attempt to withhold relevant information (i.e. win-pool odds on first-time starters) from customers playing pick threes, pick fours, and pick sixes in the blind.

Now, sadly, the practice has gone cross-country, with New York frequently carding firster-filled races as its finale. Even Keeneland, which usually takes the high road, ruined the late multirace bets on its otherwise-stellar opening Saturday card last week by following five stakes with a last-race maiden event that had nine first-time starters.

If racing wants to give customers what they want, which is a pretty good way to retain their patronage, it would offer cheap bets at lower takeouts with a chance for a big payoff, with the races thoughtfully arranged so that bettors aren’t playing roulette. They have gotten a lot more sophisticated than they were in the bygone days, when the daily double was the most exciting wager on the card.