Updated on 09/17/2011 1:09PM

Huge carryovers great for the game

Email

NEW YORK - Wednesday, March 3, 2004, is a date that shall live in parimutuel history. The largest pick six pool in the annals of American racing electrified horseplayers from coast to coast and provided some fascinating economic lessons about the racing business.

The stars were aligned for a big day. Santa Anita's pick six had escaped capture the previous Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, seeding the Wednesday pool with a $1,413,136 carryover. A Sunday-to-Wednesday carryover always attracts a little more interest than usual, as horseplayers have an extra day or two to ponder the past performances and scare up some cash. The way the calendar broke was another help: Monday was the 1st, meaning that the substantial part of the fan base, including retirees, that lives on monthly fixed-income payments had freshly cashed checks as ammunition.

Despite all that, the results were astounding.

The $1.4 million in carryover bait attracted fresh investment of $5,889,712 to the Santa Anita pick six, creating a pick six pool that broke a record that had stood since 1991. Consider for a moment that last year's Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick Six handled less, despite being promoted for weeks and televised nationally, and, of course, featuring the year's richest races and full fields of the sport's best-known horses.

To put it kindly, Wednesday's Santa Anita card was not exactly a Breeders' Cup. More like a cup of lukewarm decaf. Three of the six races were for maiden claimers, and another was a claiming sprint where nine scratches left a field of five. It was just another forgettable Wednesday card. Yet thanks to the carryover, bettors unloaded their cash as if their wallets were on fire.

They didn't just play the pick six. Having handicapped the card, they wanted action all day long. Santa Anita's total reported handle was $15,252,283, up from $6,904,267 the previous Wednesday, a much bigger difference than the incremental pick six handle. The early double, right before the first leg of the pick six, handled $137,494, up from $53,646 a week earlier. The late pick four, overlapping the last four legs of the pick six, was up from $188,016 to $409,950.

Bettors started trying to work up a pick six stake long before the early double at Santa Anita. Handle also soared at the major Eastern tracks. Aqueduct, with a nice little $134,747 carryover of its own, handled $564,646 on its pick six and was up $1.6 million in total handle over the previous Wednesday. Gulfstream's pick six drew only $26,706, but total handle was $6.9 million, up from $5.7 million a week earlier.

All this was accomplished with virtually no promotion. This betting frenzy had nothing to do with national marketing, pony rides, or T-shirt giveaways. It also happened amid substantial consumer hurdles, such as the inability of many account-wagering customers to bet through their usual providers or to see the Santa Anita signal from home. Those factors have prompted disastrous handle results at Santa Anita and Gulfstream in the first two months of the year. Wednesday's explosive action speaks to the resourcefulness of horseplayers and their overriding desire to chase big pots amid the favorable odds and excitement created by carryovers.

It seems more than coincidental that the effective takeout rate on Wednesday's pick six was less than zero. The $5,889,712 handle was subject to a 20.18 percent takeout, meaning $1,188,514 was removed from the pool. But with more than $1.4 million from previous days added back in via the carryover, there was no takeout, and more was paid out than was bet in on Wednesday. The game was being played with a 104 percent payout instead of the usual 79.82. There would be a line from Saratoga to Sacramento to play such a slot machine.

Of course you still had to come up with the six winners, and only three people nationwide did. It was a tantalizing sequence, with three winning favorites your grandmother could have smoked out and three longshots that required far more imagination than I could muster. Houston Astro was the biggest price among them, at $66.20 in the finale, but made a lot more sense to me than trainer Paddy Gallagher's two winners, Deputy Tombe ($20) and Ran for the Dough ($24.40).

The payoff certainly offered value. The win-price parlay was $167,569, but the pick six paid nearly 10 times as much at $1,567,984.60. The 5-of-6 consolation paid $3,169.20, a mere $1.564 million less than you would have gotten for that elusive sixth winner. Think those people will be back to fight another day?

Maybe, just maybe, Wednesday's big numbers will suggest that there is an additional way to market this pastime - as not only a compelling sport of drama and pageantry, but also as a fascinating and challenging game of skill that can offer life-changing payoffs at favorable odds.