Updated on 09/17/2011 11:04AM

Everybody should post $2 payoffs


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - In 1911, Matt Winn, president of Churchill Downs, established a $2 minimum bet at his racetrack, and that amount soon became the basic unit of wagering throughout the sport. For nearly a century, payoffs in American racing were quoted as the return on a $2 ticket.

Last week Gulfstream Park broke with tradition and began quoting prices on most multiple wagers - exactas, trifectas, pick threes - as the payoff on a $1 wager. An exacta that formerly paid $18.20 for $2 is now shown on the tote board and television monitors with a price of $9.10.

Tracks across the country are using an array of methods for displaying payoffs. Daily Racing Form's Steven Crist surveyed 22 tracks that have conducted racing so far this year and found "no fewer than seven different schemes being employed" for posting payoffs in $1 or $2 units. While this may be a relatively minor issue

compared with some that face Thoroughbred racing, it does underscore one of the sport's larger problems. Members of the racing industry can rarely agree on anything - no matter how simple a solution ought to be.

After the advent of exotic wagering in the 1970's, racetracks gradually abandoned the $2 minimum bet and allowed customers to bet $1 units when they combined several horses in a trifecta or superfecta.

The $1 bet is the reality today, and the California tracks were among the leaders in posting some of their payoffs accordingly.

Santa Anita and Gulfstream, the two major tracks running operating during the winter, are both owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., but they were using different formats to display their payoffs. "A lot of our patrons asked for uniformity between ourselves and Santa Anita," said Scott Savin, Gulfstream's president. "This will be less confusing to our patrons, and we can get some continuity between the two tracks."

Less confusing? Here is the system used in California and copied by Gulfstream: The payoffs for exactas, trifectas, superfectas, pick threes, and pick fours are shown as the return for a $1 bet. But win, place, show, daily double, quinella, and pick six payoffs are still quoted in a $2 denomination.

This system can be confounding because television monitors usually don't cue the viewer whether the $1 or $2 standard is being used.

Before the first race at Gulfstream, televisions show probable payoffs for exactas and daily doubles, side by side. What does it mean if the probable payoffs for a combination is $42? If it's an exacta, a $1 bet would return $42, but in the case of the double, $1 would return $21.

The regulars sitting in the grandstand at Gulfstream and Santa Anita presumably learn the way the system works at their home track. But in the modern game, customers in the grandstand focusing on a single track are a rare breed. The contemporary horseplayer is more likely to be in a simulcast theater, staring at a bank of television monitors, trying to follow the action at Aqueduct, Laurel, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, and Santa Anita simultaneously. He wants information presented to him promptly and clearly - but instead he gets different racetracks using different systems to display payoffs for different wagers. I'm a pretty seasoned bettor, but even I regularly forget that daily doubles are $2 payoffs and exactas $1 in California.

Clearly, the industry needs to adopt a uniform standard for displaying information about payoffs. Savin said, "It's got to be one way or another." But this is horse racing, with its regional rivalries, its Magna vs. Churchill, its egos; the sport took an eternity to adopt universally the color-coded saddlecloths that every fan preferred. Since the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was created to speak with one voice for the sport, it ought to forge an industry-wide consensus.

Either alternative would be acceptable as long as the $1 or $2 standard is used for every wager. My personal sense is that most fans prefer to see payoffs for a $2 bet.

Since Gulfstream instituted its change, bettors regularly wince at the sight of exactas paying $3.70 - as irrational as that may be. They like the sound of large payoffs. Local handicapper Ron Nicoletti points out: "You'll hear a horseplayer boasting, 'That trifecta paid $500 - and I had it for a buck!' It's a lot better than saying you won $250. With the new payoffs, they've taken away half your bragging rights."

The more serious argument for the $2 unit is that a system has to be uniform if it's going to logical sense. Using $2 wagers allows the sport to be consistent and keep the traditional $2 payoffs for win, place, and show. Even advocates of change would probably choke if they had to say: "I had the winner! He paid $1.70."

(c) 2003, The Washington Post