05/11/2006 11:00PM

Grand Slam worth a look


NEW YORK - When the New York Racing Association unveiled the new Grand Slam bet it began offering at the Belmont meeting that opened May 3, it sounded like a silly wager the public would spurn. The second part has been the case so far, with the first seven Grand Slam pools handling a paltry $10,132 to $19,311.

The wager itself, however, may be more interesting than it first appeared and perhaps is worth a second look.

The Grand Slam, offered on races 5 through 8 each day, is sort of a pick four where the first three legs require only that a horse run first, second, or third rather than win outright. In NYRA's promotional parlance, you "load the bases" with a correct show selection in each of the first three legs, then "hit it out of the park" with the winner of the final one.

So there are three possible winning selections in each of the first three legs and just one in the last. You can think of it as a pick four with a triple dead heat in each of the first three legs, or as a pick four where there 27 (3x3x3) rather than one possible winning combination, so the payout should be in the ballpark of 1/27th of a normal pick four.

Bill Nader, the NYRA vice president who dreamed up the wager, envisioned it as a way to open up the fun of multirace wagering to players with small bankrolls. An investment of $12 or $24 doesn't get you very far in a pick four, much less a pick six, but gives you plenty of action in a Grand Slam.

Playing it like a pick four, however, is probably not the way to go, as I learned the first two days of the bet. Both times I made 2x2x2x3 partwheels, giving myself two show horses in each of the first three legs and three possible winners in the finale. If both of my show horses hit the board, I could have been alive eight times into the final leg, but both times I got just one of them in the money in each race. On the first day, the $2 Grand Slam payoff was $46.20 and the next day it paid $44, providing returns of $23.10 and $22 for every $24 invested. This clearly was not the route to early retirement.

A more productive way to look at it is simply as a means to improve the win price of a horse or two you like in the feature. In five of the first seven Grand Slams, the payoff was six to 10 times the win payoff in the feature. By correctly preceding that winner with three correct show selections, you could have improved $5.80 to $46.20, $4.10 to $44, $11.80 to $95.50, $3.60 to $23 and $5.70 to $44.

These improvements are not too shabby. If you really like an even-money or 9-5 shot, what's wrong with making him 20-1 by making three correct show selections? On Thursday at Belmont, for example, the favorites in races 5, 6, and 7 all showed, and a cold-punch Grand Slam ticket of those three favorites with Nothing But Fun in the feature turned $5.70 into $44 - even though the three show payoffs were only $2.60, $3.50, and $2.90, and the parlay of those payoffs into the $5.70 winner was only $18.30.

The Grand Slam payoffs are substantially higher than the parlay price of three show bets into a win bet for several reasons. First, even though the takeout is 25 percent rather than the 15 percent on win and show bets, you are subjected to it only once and thus effectively reducing the bite to 6.25 percent per race. Also, you are ducking the ravaging effect of breakage, the biggest deterrent to show betting because breakage can impose as much as an additional 45 percent takeout when $2.19 is rounded down to $2.10.

Thinking of the Grand Slam as a mechanism to improve the price on a last-leg winner, rather than as a bargain-priced pick four, seems the way to go. One other reason to play it might be to monetize an opinion that an odds-on favorite in one of the first three legs might be off the board. The only triple-digit Grand Slam payoff came on May 5, when Trippi's Storm was fifth at 4-5 in the sixth race and the first three finishers went off at odds of 10-1, 33-1, and 25-1. That day, a $21.20 winner of the final leg completed a Grand Slam worth $533, more than 26 times the winner's price, even though the favorites showed in the two other early legs.

One reason the bet has been slow to catch on is that few outlets outside of New York have installed the software to offer it. While it is unlikely ever to become a major pool, it does have some appeal and deserves a wider trial. It may not be hitting a home run, but if nothing else the Grand Slam merits a ground-rule double for trying something new in a betting marketplace where new products are so rarely introduced.