Updated on 09/15/2011 12:57PM

To lure crowds, try 50-cent bets

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NEW YORK - What American racing needs today is not a $10 million Cigar but a 50-cent superfecta.

The notion that a single popular horse can save racing by becoming a national hero is in vogue again, thanks in part to the commercial success of the book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend." Racing people, hearing how 63 years ago a nation huddled by radios to hear of a racehorse's exploits, seem to think that if another Seabiscuit materializes, racing will once again dominate popular culture.

That might be true if you could simultaneously eliminate a few other pesky distractions, such as hundreds of channels of cable and satellite television, professional football and basketball, state lotteries, casinos, and the Internet, for starters. It's a different world, and it's never going back to the entertainment-starved, black-and-white days when baseball, boxing, and horse racing comprised the American sports and entertainment menu.

We've had big horses and they don't grow the game beyond the handful of days on which they race. Cigar pumped attendance for the individual races he won during his fabulous streak, but failed to create a significant number of new fans or affect the downward attendance slide of the 1990's. Point Given set attendance records at Monmouth and Saratoga in his last two starts but failed to raise the sport's profile or fill seats between his starts.

Now that Point Given is being retired, we are sure to be told that this is a tragedy for racing. We will hear the tired lament that the fragility of the Thoroughbred deprives the sport of a chance to create heroes who could make racing number one on the charts. That wasn't going to happen and never will.

Racing has never had a problem attracting big Saturday crowds a few times a year for its marquee events. It is doing a better job than ever at this, judging from the routine record-setting at the Triple Crown races and Saratoga. The trick is getting them to come back on a quiet Thursday in March, and this speaks more to improving the customer and wagering experience than to snaring the occasional mention in the mainstream media.

Nothing ensures a patron won't come back like a day without cashing a ticket. This happens a lot at the track, whereas it's virtually impossible to pull a slot machine for more than a minute without getting at least a few coins back in your tray. One small way to make the game more friendly and seem more rewarding would be for racing to take a serious look at further reducing its minimum bets.

Going from $2 to $1 in most venues made the increasingly popular exotic bets a lot more affordable, but the entry barrier could be lowered further. There is no reason that pick threes and fours, trifectas, and superfectas could not have a 50-cent minimum on multiple combinations.

This would make currently unaffordable bets feasible for the army of customers who really aren't comfortable losing much more than $20 a race or $100 a day. For such players, having enough combinations for a fighting chance at victory in the super-exotics is just out of reach financially. If they could go 3x3x4 in a pick three for $18 rather than $36, instead of cutting out horses to keep their play under $20, they would cash more tickets. They would win a lot more often, and their handle would increase, if they could box five horses in a 50-cent trifecta box for $30 instead of four horses in a $1 box for $24.

Machines do all the math, so there's no issue of complexity here. Fans would quickly grasp that just as they now get half the $2 payoff with a $1 winner, they would get a quarter of the $2 payoff on a 50-center. Why not give it a shot, at least on one of those quiet Thursdays or Sundays in March or September?

Point Given very good, not great

As for Point Given, the most disappointing thing about his retirement is that we will never know if he was great or merely very good. He will no doubt be lionized as an immortal by the gullible and those who stand to profit from his stallion career, and he is the odds-on favorite to be the Horse of the Year regardless of what happens this fall.

People will say he proved all he needed to prove on the track, but he didn't. Repeated victories over A P Valentine, Dollar Bill, and a subpar Monarchos do not necessarily make you great, nor does running down Touch Tone and E Dubai. You can only beat what you run against, but he never had the opportunity to beat a champion or an older horse or to overcome real adversity.

Three-year-old champion? Absolutely. Horse of the Year? Only if no one else dominates the fall. Hall of Fame? Not on my ballot.