06/20/2007 11:00PM

Free money - but you've got to win it


NEW YORK - Imagine a parimutuel paradise where the handle is huge, the takeout is 7 percent when there's any takeout at all, and multi-race payouts can be worth triple the parlay. It sounds like a fictional afternoon at Utopia Downs, but it happened last Wednesday amid a perfect storm of pick-six carryovers at Belmont, Churchill Downs, and Hollywood Park.

When nobody picked six on Father's Day at any of the three tracks, there were carryovers into Wednesday of $72,599 at Belmont, $97,352 at Churchill, and $183,033 at Hollywood, all of which are dark Mondays and Tuesdays. That gave horseplayers an extra 48 hours to ponder the past performances while preserving or replenishing their bankrolls for Wednesday's tripleheader.

Carryovers are catnip for three reasons. The sheer size of the pools they attract inspires sugar-plum dreams of life-changing scores; such dreams fill the pools with fresh money from unsophisticated handicappers; and the mathematics of carryovers make them rare bargains in a racing world of otherwise punitively high takeouts. Wednesday's pools and payouts were textbook illustrations.

At Belmont, the $72,599 carryover drummed up an additional $419,572, with the latter sum reduced by the usual usurious 25 percent pick six takeout in New York. Even so, that $104,893 subtracted from the pool was largely replaced by the $72,599 carryover. So on a day when $419,572 was bet into the pick six, a total of $387,278 was paid out, reducing the effective takeout to a mere 7.7 percent.

At Hollywood, the carryover bait of $183,033 lured an additional $1,079,540. California takes 20.18 on the pick six, meaning $217,851 was subtracted, but was almost entirely replaced by the carryover. The net takeout rate was a mere 3.3 percent.

Churchill's pick six offered the best value of all, and not only because of its relatively gentle 19 percent takeout rate. The $97,352 carryover drew only $252,681 in additional bets, meaning the $48,009 lost to takeout was more than doubly made up for by the carryover. Instead of a takeout of any kind, there was effectively a 19 percent "put-in," and a total of $302,023 was paid out on a day when only $252,681 was wagered into the pool. Somewhere, a hedge-fund manager is weeping at the missed opportunity.

Of course you still had to come up with six winners on the same ticket, though this was made somewhat easier by results in which 15 of the 18 pick six races at the three tracks were won by horses who went off at 3-1 or less. Hollywood turned out to be the chalkiest, with winners paying $4.40, $6.80, $11.60, $4.60, $9.40 and $8.40. That translates to a parlay of $3,939, but the pick six returned $5,193.20, a 31 percent improvement.

At both Belmont and Churchill, there were five of those 3-1 or lowers and one longshot, with Unforgotten taking the third leg at Churchill at $38 and Karakorum Tuxedo the official winner of the finale at Belmont at $41.40. Such horses are actually even bigger longshots in the pick six pool, because they appear so rarely on the tickets of modestly funded players who don't go more than two or three horses deep in any race. As a result, and because of the lower effective takeouts, the Belmont six-race parlay of $4,189 became a pick six worth $14,026, while Churchill's $11,789 parlay paid $41,722.

Belmont's finale was the most dramatic. Our Top Cat, the 3-1 second choice in the race, finished first and would have completed a sequence producing 224 winning tickets worth only $1,389 apiece. Unfortunately for those ticketholders, Our Top Cat won while bearing out repeatedly under left-handed whipping, clearly impeding Karakorum Tuxedo, who was placed first. That meant only 22 winning tickets, each worth $14,026.

Our Top Cat was 3.05-1 in the win pool while Karakorum Tuxedo was 19.70-1, meaning there was five times as much bet to win on Our Top Cat (10.5 percent of the pool vs. 2.05 percent of the pool, under New York's 15opercent win-pool takeout). In the pick six, however, the difference was a factor of 10, between 224 and 22 winning tickets.

A lot of the disqualified tickets probably got that far with only a small investment, since the two odds-on favorites in the sequence prevailed earlier, so for those players the takedown qualified as a tough beat. I on the other hand had the easiest possible beat: Utterly convinced that two horses towered over the competition in a field of 10, I got alive to the two of them and, while counting my chickens, watched them stage an epic battle - to finish precisely ninth and 10th. Even at Utopia Downs, your handicapping and your horses have to be better than that.