05/23/2001 12:00AM

Hawthorne fed the sharks


WASHINGTON - When a horseplayer holds an especially strong opinion on a race, he is apt to announce to his brethren:

"They're giving away money here!" Such words are usually uttered with a touch of irony because the racing game is so difficult that surefire opportunities rarely arise. But for two remarkable weeks this month, a racetrack really was giving away money.

So while most mainstream racing fans were directing their attention to Churchill Downs and Pimlico, a segment of the gambling population focused on a wager at Chicago's Hawthorne Race Course.

For its race meeting that began May 1, Hawthorne announced it would offer a pick six while guaranteeing a minimum pool of $100,000 per day. It was a promotion that was simultaneously innovative, admirable, ill-conceived, and ill-executed. Other tracks (particularly those in California) have stimulated wagering by offering guaranteed pools, but they can do it because they have a large audience of pick six-oriented players. Hawthorne doesn't have such a clientele. Wise guys who contemplated the possibilities at Hawthorne could easily envision days when $50,000 or less would be bet on the pick six and the track would be paying out $100,000. Giving away money, indeed.

The pick six was the brainchild of Thomas Carey III, the track's director of operations, who said, "We needed to find a way to draw attention to Hawthorne racing in the spring." The state racing commission had saddled the track - which had traditionally raced in the fall - with 31 dates in May and June that it didn't want. To promote the meeting, Carey cut the takeout and introduced the pick six, which he hoped would "bridge the gap between horseplayers and lottery players." He envisioned that he would appeal to casual fans willing to play a few $1 combinations and take a chance for a big payoff. He assumed that these players would have difficulty hitting the pick six, and that after a day or two the carryover jackpot would build to more than $100,000 so that the track would have no risk.

With this audience in mind, Hawthorne offered the pick six as a $1 wager (as opposed to the $2 unit almost everywhere else.) Moreover, the track didn't even try to make the pick six as tough as possible. On its opening day program was a wide-open event for Illinois-bred maidens, but this race wasn't included in the pick six. But a race with a virtually unbeatable 3-5 favorite was part of it.

Carey thought he was making the bet more attractive for those small lottery players. But as he put bait in the water, a school of sharks converged upon it.

On each of the first two days of the Hawthorne season, about $50,000 was bet into the pick six - and several players hit it each time. On the third day, wagers totaled less than $29,000, and the pick six included winners at 19-1 and 15-1, with no sure-thing favorites. Yet one bettor held a winning ticket worth $76,906. The normal parimutuel takeout comes out of the $100,000 guarantee.

The track realized that it needed to boost the minimum bet to $2, but even this change didn't stem the tide. Bettors were hitting the pick six regularly, and Carey said, "I could not fathom what was happening." Hawthorne discontinued the pick six guarantee two weeks after it began. The venture cost the track more than $200,000 in subsidies.

What had happened? Wise guys around the country had recognized the opportunity at Hawthorne and it was they - not a bunch of converted Illinois lottery players - who were betting the pick six. About 38 percent of the handle came through from a Birmingham dog track, the conduit for wagers made through a Caribbean telephone-betting operation that caters to many American high rollers. Overall, out-of-state simulcast bets accounted for 70 percent of the action on the pick six.

Still, this wasn't a total disaster for Hawthorne. I am sure my own experience was similar to many other players'. Because of the pick six, I started studying and handicapping the Illinois races daily. I played many races individually. Even after the guarantee was discontinued, I still bet Hawthorne. And since the pick six is going to be paying for my summer vacation in France, I will always feel a special affinity for the track.

Carey's concept was a good one; only the implementation was bad.

A regrettable part of the Hawthorne experiment is that other tracks will look at its results and conclude that offering innovative bets and guaranteed pools is too risky. In fact, the proper conclusion is a different one. Racetrack managers need a clearer understanding of the wagers they offer and the people who play them.

The rationale for offering a wager such as the pick six is to build up a large jackpot that stimulates betting and generates excitement. To foster such a jackpot, the track must make the pick six difficult to win. (Attempting to democratize the bet and make it easier for small players to win only makes it too easy for the sharks.) The betting unit must be $2, and the racing secretary's office must diligently put the most challenging races on the card into the pick six. The track can jump-start the growth of a jackpot by offering a guarantee, but it doesn't have to be an outlandish guarantee; $25,000 or $50,000 would effectively attract bettors' attention without causing the track undue risk.

To his credit, Carey wasn't thoroughly discouraged by the outcome of his experiment. He learned a lesson from it. When Hawthorne runs its fall meeting, he said, he is inclined to make a few modifications and offer a guaranteed pick-six pool again.

The sharks will be watching, hungrily.

? 2001, The Washington Post