10/06/2004 11:00PM

Early reports have eased pick five concerns

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A concern among Southern California racetrack executives this fall was that the innovative $1 pick five introduced by the Oak Tree Racing Association would cannibalize other wagering pools, including a bet that is considered virtually sacred - the $2 pick six.

The worry was the pick five would siphon wagering dollars, cause pick six pools to shrink, carryovers to diminish, and interest in Southern California racing to dwindle. Many officials contend that the pick six is the foundation of Southern California racing, and that if the pick six lost its zing, there would be one fewer reason to play a circuit already on troubled footing.

It is a familiar debate. Santa Anita officials considered the same dilemma before instituting the $1 pick four in 2001. Ultimately, the track expanded its menu to include the pick four and rolling daily doubles throughout the card and crossed its fingers that the broadened format would not negatively impact the pick six. It worked out fine. Horseplayers adjusted, the new wagers survived, and the pick six continues to thrive.

But when Oak Tree executive vice-president Sherwood Chillingworth pondered adding a pick five on the final five races this fall, familiar arguments resurfaced. Detractors suggested there already were too many wagering choices and the pick five would cannibalize the pick six. The new bet would kill the old standby. So far, it has not.

Six days into the Oak Tree meet, the pick five is a thundering success - without harming the pick six or the pick four. The pick six accounted for 2.3 percent of handle the first full week of the 2003 meet and 3.1 percent this year (aided by a carryover). The pick four accounted for 2.5 percent of handle the first full week of 2003 and 2.3 percent this year. Meanwhile, the pick five represented 1.7 percent of the opening-week handle as pools averaged $112,000 the first four weekdays and topped $200,000 Saturday and Sunday. Was it a surprise?

"If I thought it was going to be a lousy bet I would never have done it," Chillingworth said, while admitting he was thinking about pick six bettors when deciding to offer the bet. The pick six is offered on the final six races of the card; the pick five covers the final five races. Chillingworth's theory was, "The guy that bombed out on the first leg of the pick six can recover his investment; the guy who loses the pick 6, he'll go to the pick 5 as the next resort."

But the pick five is far more than a safety net for the pick six. Bettors are discovering that the pick five wager combines attributes exclusive of the pick six and pick four - large payoffs and affordability.

While pick six payoffs routinely exceed $10,000, the wager is expensive. Even in a best-case scenario, the pick six is at least six times more difficult than a pick five.

In extending a horizontal wager from five races to six, a bettor might use just one horse - the favorite - in the additional leg. That translates to a one-in-three chance of winning that leg. But since the pick six is a $2 bet, the cost doubles, while the chance of winning decreases to one-third. A bettor would need to play three times as often, at double the cost, to win the pick six.

Until now, the option to the pick six was the more affordable $1 pick four, which became a Southern California staple in late 2000. Payoffs have gradually descended. The median pick four payoff during the 2003 Oak Tree meet was unusually high ($1,169), but at most Southern California race meets, the pick four median falls short of four figures. Jackpots occur, albeit infrequently. Nearly half the Oak Tree pick four payoffs last fall were less than four figures. In the pick five, however, five of the first six payoffs exceeded $1,000.

The pick five may not be much tougher than the pick four. The Sept. 29 pick five started with a favorite at 2-1 and produced a payoff more than double the pick four payoff. On Sept. 30, the pick five began with a second betting choice at 3-1; the pick five payoff was nearly four times higher than that of the pick four. And on Oct. 3, the pick five started with a second betting choice that was 5-1; the pick five payoff was more than six times higher than that of the pick four.

While bettors seek ways to capitalize on the multitude of wagering choices, racing executives will continue to monitor the bottom line. "So far it looks like a success," Chillingworth said.

His worries about the pick five were its effect on the pick six, and, he said, a "greater concern is it would impact the pick four, because we have three guaranteed pick four [pools]."

Last Saturday, bettors faced three temptations - a pick six carryover of $98,294, a $400,000 guaranteed pick four pool on the Oak Tree races, and a $400,000 guarantee on an NTRA pick four. Bettors sailed past both pick four guarantees, pumped $584,074 into the pick six, $542,304 into the Oak Tree pick four, and $206,372 into the pick five.

The initial results and feedback of the pick five have been positive. Said Chillingworth: "All I can tell you is everybody I talk to says, 'We really like it,' and the [mutel] clerks say everybody likes it."

Perhaps for the time being, the biggest challenge regarding the pick five is strategy. And that is another story.

Pick 4 vs. Pick 5
$1 payoffs; first six days of Oak Tree meet

DatePick 4Pick 5
Sep. 29$504.30$1,170.80
Sep. 30281.101,110.30
Oct. 116,581.20102,626.60
Oct. 2749.304,554.30
Oct. 350.80270.10
Oct. 62,086.504,002.80