09/10/2012 12:23PM

Jay Bergman: Yonkers pick four in need of makeover

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There have been some changes recently in the Yonkers Raceway condition sheet. In an effort to reward horses and horsemen that race primarily in New York, the sheet has been changed with some races now restricted to horses that have made four of their last six starts at New York’s harness tracks. While these events have been listed in the past, the change is that they now offer a full 20 percent bonus above the open purse for a similar class.

While it’s still too early to judge what, if any, benefits will emerge from the new condition sheet, it did make me wonder if there were other uses that the horsemen could find for increasing purses. More specifically, the mindset was whether the economic benefit of purse increases could be aimed at increasing handle as well. It would be nice if more people would race in New York. It would be nice if more people would breed in New York. What would be better than both would be if somehow the handle could break seven figures on a regular basis at Yonkers.

Recent efforts have been made with limited success to guarantee pick-four pools. Despite these efforts, we must make the conclusion that offering a string of eight-horse fields with odds-on horses sprinkled within is a recipe for low-paying pick fours. We must look at the competition, and when we see Thoroughbred racetracks offer multiple-race pools with hundreds of thousands in them daily, it’s hard to compete when the best we can do is offer lower pools and much lower payouts.

What needs to be understood by horsemen and racetracks is that gambling is a competitive business and the type of product we put out nightly either attracts or fails to attract business. If the product doesn’t attract increased business, efforts should be made to change the product for the better and for the bettor.

With that in mind, we’d like to propose a few changes to the pick-four format at Yonkers with an idea toward building a better business model and perhaps increasing wagering interest at New York’s premier facility.

First, since we see that the horsemen are willing to increase purses for horses that race primarily in New York, there’s no reason they can’t increase purses while adding two horses to each race within the pick four. With the added money, there should be no problem changing the purse breakdown for owners to include the top eight finishers.

Despite the general argument that horsemen don’t like racing from the second tier, it would seem likely if the purses were higher and more horses got paid off that some of the dissent would vanish.

Secondly, we would want a committee of horsemen and the racing secretary to meet in order to create the four races of the primary (guaranteed pool) pick four of the evening. But we wouldn’t want to stop at just choosing the races. We would like the horsemen and racing secretary to handicap the races either by selecting the best 10 horses to enter a particular class or to handicap the post positions of the 10 drawn into a particular race. There has been an incredible lack of design in formulating races devoid of odds-on horses. Sometimes the luck of the draw places the best ones on the inside. We would suggest that no pick-four race should include any inside horse guaranteed to be an odds-on entity. A team of horsemen, the racing secretary, and even some astute gamblers that the horsemen trust, could be utilized to put together select, more competitive fields.

Perhaps sticking with a mile distance would be a good way to start this regrouping of the races, but should they not meet the desired response, there’s no reason why the four collective races couldn’t offer modified distances such as 1 1/16 miles and 1 5/16 miles. In each case, the added distance also would assure a longer run to the first turn that may in fact promote a little more lively racing action.

Since we’re asking for 10-horse fields, we would offer that no horse would have to race in a 10-horse field more than once a month, though if horsemen found the added purse money attractive they would be free to enter.

What should the purse supplement be?

I would say any amount the horsemen think fair enough to ask their brethren to sacrifice something for the good of the handle. What’s paramount to any experiment is the understanding that the model of creating competitive racing has to change in order to expect any outcome to improve.

Despite what we’ve heard in some corners, there is simply no truth that higher purses alone guarantee more competitive races. However, the idea that horsemen and the racing office can work in concert may be something that drives the group to think that they do have a common bond and a common purpose. Both entities should want to put on the most attractive product they can. It would be fair to say that the racing secretary should have ultimate control, but he’s just one person and his income is secure. The horseman, on the other hand, have a much greater stake in the growth of the sport and a much bigger stake in the product they put on the racetrack every night. Why shouldn’t they have solid input into creating a more marketable product?

Recently Bob Pandolfo made an astute observation about how the number of odds-on winners is detrimental to the overall health of this gambling sport. I couldn’t agree more. At the same time, an unwillingness to experiment and make changes to give gamblers more of a reason to take us seriously keeps us spinning our wheels and going nowhere. With a surplus of purse money now available at Yonkers due to success at the slots and an overall underpayment from the fund, what better time to give the pick four an extreme makeover it needs.