07/24/2013 4:33PM

Harness: Debunking conspiracy theories about super pick five carryover jackpot


Social media are blowing up over “The worst bad beat story of all time,” as detailed by Andrew Beyer on Monday in the Washington Post and on the DRF website. (http://www.drf.com/news/andrew-beyer-worst-bad-beat-story-all-time). As usual, Beyer makes solid points throughout the column and I certainly agree that these jackpot wagers are sucker bets with ridiculous payouts, but a couple of things are still bugging me about this story.

First off, the two gentlemen involved wagered $240 and won nearly $12,000. That is a bad beat I will take any day of the week. It’s not half-a-million bucks, granted, but it is a nice profit. A bad beat is when your horse wins and then is taken down by the judges for a non-existent infraction. A bad beat is when the other half of a coupled entry causes interference and your horse gets taken down. And, as one wag put it on one of the message boards, a bad beat would have been if the two punters had crossed signals on who was supposed to buy the ticket and they had each played the combo, canceling each other out.

Second, unlike the quick-pick player at Arlington Park who may not have known racing and wagering rules, the individuals involved “frequently collaborate on wagers,” according to Beyer. One is a jockey agent and one is a racehorse owner. They should have known about the possibility that a scratch/off-time favorite winning could alter or void a payout. Some tracks advertise that fact when posting multi-race wager will-pays on video screens and nearly all note it in their programs. In fact, until recently, Northfield Park did not post will-pays when there was a scratch in the final leg of a multi-race wager. It appears that Louisiana Downs’s tote system and video feed were all working correctly. When another horse was the favorite, it correctly reported a huge payout on the eventual winner. Once a different horse became the favorite, the will-pay changes. If he didn’t become the favorite until the final click, it doesn’t negate the fact that he was the favorite.

As Beyer’s story points out, “The data fed from tote companies to racetracks cannot reflect this information, because their computers don’t know who the post-time favorite will be. (Mutuel manager and announcer Travis Stone said, "If we’d known [all of the circumstances], we wouldn’t have shown the probable payoffs." Indeed, that’s the practice at most tracks. Stone was sympathetic about “the anguish that the incorrect information had caused.” (and in the interest of accuracy, it is not the post-time favorite, but the off-time favorite. We all know about post time drag).

Now, make no mistake, I have always said the scratch/off-time favorite rule is a bad one, especially in this situation. A consolation payoff is much fairer to all parties involved. Players are rewarded for their success; they are not doubled up on a low-priced horse they already have (or assigned a low-priced horse they were already trying to beat); and the track does not end up with a PR nightmare like this one.

Finally, let me address the theory that seems to the most popular of all among social networking posters, that of a second gunman on the grassy knoll, i.e. that someone at the track purchased the ticket to keep the jackpot rolling, perhaps to get it beyond the magic $500,000 figure. I am not about to tell anyone that the tote system is infallible, that mistakes don’t happen or that fraud is not ever possible. But, to pull this scam off, track management would almost have to duplicate the Breeders’ Cup scam of 2002. Louisiana Downs was able to identify that the ticket was purchased at Arlington Park, in Illinois, at 8:21 a.m. And, while it took them a few hours, I feel they did a pretty good job of tracking things down.  If they were part of a conspiracy, they would have come up with a much more general “blow them off,” excuse. But instead, they generated specific details in a reasonable timeframe.

Another conspiracy theorist came up with an easier way to fix the wager. Track management just bets several thousand on this horse to turn him into the favorite. It would certainly be easier than a scam ticket, and crazier things have happened, although not so much in these days of corporate-owned tracks. But my understanding is that there were four horses live for the jackpot, meaning the stunt could easily backfire.

But let’s say, just for a moment, someone in track management did want to push that jackpot beyond $500,000 to live for another day or two. It would help handle short-term, yes. But what about long-term? Casinos spend far more time advertising their big winners and their wins than they do advertising the actual amounts of their available jackpots. And Louisiana Downs is owned by Harrah’s, a casino company. Is there really any doubt that it would have been in their best interest to have the two men’s faces plastered in the program, on the video screens? and even on billboards saying they won $488,000 on the Louisiana Downs Super Pick Five? How many people would head to the track to play it, to take their shot? A few? Dozens? Hundreds? I don’t know, but I am certain the number is higher than the number of people looking at the billboard, saying, “only $488,000? Why bother, it’s not half-a-million.”

Now go cash. Whether it’s for $12,000 or $488,000. But cash. See you next month.