11/11/2004 12:00AM

Hollywood pick six losing ground


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A row of short-priced winners Wednesday at Hollywood Park generated an unusual array of payoffs.

It is hardly news, of course, when favorites dominate a particular race card. But the minimal payoffs Wednesday were curious in that not a single wager paid more than $1,000.

That includes the $2 pick six, which returned a paltry $835; the highest $1 superfecta payoff was just $969.20. It was a disappointed bettor who chose Wednesday at Hollywood to swing for the fences. And it was the first time in eight months in Southern California that a race card was completed without a $1,000 payoff.

The last time it happened was way back on March 12 at Santa Anita, when favorites won seven of eight races. The uppermost win payoff was $7.80, and the highest exotic-wager return was $898.20 on the pick six.

A similar dilemma occurred Wednesday at Hollywood: Favorites won 5 of 8, the highest-priced winner started at 3-1, and even the $1 trifecta returns were short - all but one returned $64 or less.

The card may have been an aberration. Hollywood front-loads its cards with the smallest fields, and the first three races Wednesday were typical - two five-horse fields and one six-horse field. Field sizes were bigger the last five races, and averaged more than eight starters.

Six days into the autumn meet, Hollywood is averaging 7.2 starters per race, and favorites have won 19 of 50 races (38 percent). But the last four races of the day have averaged more than eight starters per race, and those are the races the track is promoting most heavily.

Hollywood is the first track to offer daily guaranteed pools in the pick four - $200,000 daily except Saturday, when the guarantee doubles to $400,000. The track has met every pick four guarantee.

Meanwhile, interest in the pick six has dwindled. Six days into the meet, there was not a single carryover, and total pick six handle has plummeted some 38 percent compared with the first six days of the 2003 fall meet. Year-to-year comparisons are tricky, because a carryover into the second day last year generated handle of more than $600,000 and contributed to total pick six handle after the first six days of more than $1.6 million. This year's overall pick six handle after six days is slightly more than $1 million.

Even discounting the carryover last year and the comparable day this year, average pick six pools at Hollywood are running $26,292 less ($205,043 to $178,751).

Opinions differ on whether the shifting wagering habits are good for Southern California. Even though early indications show a decline in pick six pools, the wager continues to out-handle the pick six at other jurisdictions. In early November, the average non-carryover pick six pool at Hollywood is more than three times higher than an average pick six pool at Aqueduct.

The size of pick six pools is one reason many pick six bettors gravitate toward Southern California. Due to their sheer enormity, pick six pools in Southern California can absorb large tickets that may cost upward of $1,000 and include hundreds of combinations. When the pools are as large as they are in Southern California, it can make sense for bettors to "buy" their advantage by investing large amounts of money.

The America Tab group that played a $44,280 pick six ticket on the Breeders' Cup illustrated how well the strategy works. Wagering into a pool that would exceed $4.5 million, the America Tab ticket hit 5 of 6 on five tickets for a net of witholding payoff of $210,563.

The "volume strategy" that worked so well for America Tab would never work for the pick four, however. It is extremely difficult to string together six winners on a card as competitive as the Breeders' Cup, but by comparison the pick four is relatively easy. A pick four bettor cannot expect to generate profit by swarming the pool with dollars. The payoffs are just too small.

At Hollywood, they are getting smaller - the pick four on Wednesday returned $146.70 even while the bet handled nearly $300,000. But size of a pool does not correlate to size of a payoff. In fact, one could argue that the larger the pick four pool, the less likely it is to generate an overlaid payoff. That is because the more dollars that are bet, the greater the chances are of an "efficient" pool in which every horse in the sequence is priced according to his or her chance to win.

Smaller exotic-wager pools, meanwhile, often generate wild discrepancies in payoffs. That is because in a smaller pool, not all horses are covered in accord with their true chances.

So is the pick four at Hollywood a good bet?

As is usually the case, it depends on one's interpretation of the sequence, and how high a bettor plans to aim.

For some of the 1,617 winning pick four bettors on Wednesday, the $146 return may have seemed like a gift. After all, the $8.20 "upset" by Running Free in the seventh race was the highest payoff in the sequence.

Other bettors view exotic wagers in a different light. For them, a day without at least one four-figure payoff will go as the wrong day to swing for the fences.