07/29/2004 12:00AM

Don't blindly jump into every guaranteed pool


DEL MAR, Calif. - Even before Del Mar and Saratoga energized the bet with summertime promotions, the $1 pick four had emerged as a surprisingly popular addition to the wagering menu. It did not take long to get there.

In fall 2000, Hollywood Park became the first track to add the pick four to its daily format. Other tracks soon followed, and handle mushroomed. Total pick four wagers were more than $150 million in 2002 and increased to more than $200 million in 2003.

The bet's popularity will grow in 2004, thanks to a new twist on a familiar idea. Del Mar and Saratoga this summer introduced guaranteed pools on the pick four, with the tracks making up the difference if total wagers on the pick fours do not exceed a specific amount. Saratoga's guarantee is $400,000 most Saturdays and Sundays; Del Mar's guarantee is $500,000 every Sunday. It's an easy sell.

"Basically we're saying to everybody, 'Hey, let's all play,' " said Craig Dado, Del Mar's vice president of marketing. Apparently, everybody listened. The first Sunday of the meet, with the pool guaranteed at $400,000, pick four handle more than doubled the guarantee - $935,648. The question is, why? Is it a publicity stunt, or a genuine benefit to horseplayers?

"It's a marketing gimmick," wagering expert Barry Meadow said. "Imagine if the show pool was guaranteed $1 million; would people suddenly be betting $1 million to show? A guaranteed pool is only a benefit to the player when the guarantee exceeds what is actually going to be in the pool. Otherwise, there's no advantage."

Meadow is right. The mere fact that a wagering pool is large does not equate to an edge. It only means that more money is wagered, and more winning tickets are sold. Yet the fascination remains.

"People are excited by large amounts, but there's no intrinsic value," Meadow added.

The first large-scale guarantee was a $1 million guaranteed pick six pool at Hollywood Park on June 14, 1998. The bet proved an instant attention grabber, and the pool topped $3.3 million. While Hollywood has promoted a guaranteed pick six pool 26 times over the past six years, the 2004 summer season marks the first time guaranteed pools will be held regularly in the pick four, which requires bettors to pick four consecutive winners, usually the last four races of the day.

The challenge for Del Mar is promoting the pick four while not interfering with the pick six.

"The pick four has become very popular, for whatever reason - because it's a $1 bet, or infinitely easier to hit than the pick six," said Dado, the marketing vice president, while emphasizing that the pick six remains the golden child on the wagering menu. "I look out for the pick six. It's [virtually] a national pick six, and a great marketing tool. I don't want to give that up."

Early indications are that Del Mar does not need to give up anything. Notwithstanding heavy promotion and handle on the initial $400,000 guaranteed pick four pool, the pick six handled $435,598 on opening Sunday, slightly higher than the corresponding day of the 2003 meet.

"We were concerned that we would lose pick six money," said Michael Ernst, senior vice president and chief financial officer. "But the pick six actually went up."

Del Mar already has increased the pick four guarantee to $500,000 and may go beyond.

"I want to be a little cautious about overextending this," Dado said, but "if [handle] continues to go north, maybe the guarantee will continue to go north."

Competition will intensify. Saratoga has guaranteed pick four pools every Saturday and Sunday except Aug. 14 - when the NTRA holds a $400,000 guaranteed pick four pool, covering two Arlington races and two Saratoga races - and Sept. 5. A $1 million guaranteed pick four pool will be promoted on Aug. 28, Travers Day. At Del Mar, in addition to the pick four guarantee, a $1 million guaranteed pool in the pick six is scheduled for Aug. 22, Pacific Classic Day.

Del Mar credits the Television Games Network for much of the initial success of the guaranteed pick four pool.

"One of the reasons we did so well is that TVG really hammered it," Dado said. "Their show on the weekends encompasses those four races."

TVG's afternoon broadcasts are picked up from 4 to 6 p.m. Pacific time on Fox Sports West 2 in Southern California, a market that includes 5 million homes.

From a racetrack perspective, the success of guaranteed pick four and pick six pools is measured beyond the amount handled on those wagers. Every track in Southern California has discovered that when bettors are attracted to a pick six carryover, or a guaranteed pool, handle typically increases on other pools also. It's good advertising, and good business.

From a horseplayer's perspective, however, there is no added incentive to play the pick four merely because the pool is guaranteed to reach a specific amount.

The time to make a bet is when the potential reward outweighs the risk. Regardless of the size of the pools, the California pick four will continue to be taxed at the extreme rate of 20.68 percent.

Racetracks deserve credit for including their wagering menu in advertising strategy. But the parimutuel climb does not get any less steep based on a well-founded marketing gimmick.

Ultimately, wagering success depends on logical handicapping and sensible wagering strategy. Not the size of the pool.