11/21/2002 12:00AM

Mid-race odds drops hurt essence of game

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - A horseplayer's formative experience usually begins with the most basic idea of picking a horse and betting it to win. After a while things progress a bit further, to the point where the fledgling punter reads up on ideas and methods for doping out the most likely winner. At this point, our hero is starting to buy Daily Racing Form on a regular basis, and experimentation with exotic bets may start to take place.

Over the course of time, an enlightened minority come to realize that merely picking the most likely winner is not enough. In order to win consistently they must find a way to express their handicapping opinion in the form of an odds line, whether actually written down or "in their heads," and bet only on horses whose odds are higher than their assessed chance of winning.

Sometimes this means that the second, third, or even fourth-most likely winner is actually the horse that should be bet, because assigning relative chances and restricting play to value situations is really the essence of profitable long-term win betting.

But nowadays this time-honored approach can be an iffy proposition because of odds changes that occur after a race has begun. And we're not talking about insignificant changes of a half-point or even a full point, as anyone who has been watching recent races at Aqueduct knows.

Consider these recent episodes at The Big A:

Oct. 30, 7th race: Grab Bag presses the pace in third position and is 3-2 on the television screen until taking the lead in midstretch, when his odds drop to even money. Bettors who thought they were getting a $5 winner got only $4.10.

Nov. 15, 3rd race: Formal Dancer is 3-2 after the opening half-mile of a two-turn route. As the field approaches the far turn, her odds drop to 4-5. Bettors who thought they were getting a $5 winner got only $3.70.

Nov. 16, 5th race: A collective groan erupts from ontrack players gathered for Aqueduct's Handicapping Challenge, as Harley Quinn is 7-2 going into the turn and drops in one flash to 2-1 coming out of the turn. Bettors and contest players who thought they were getting a $9-to-$9.80 payoff at the half-mile pole instead received $6.60.

Nov. 17, 6th race: Classic Endeavor takes the lead through the first quarter and is shown on the television monitors at 20-1. Just before completing the second quarter, he extends his lead a bit and his odds drop to 13-1. Bettors who thought they were getting a $42 horse had to settle for $28.80.

A race later, Classic Endeavor's stablemate Personable Pete, the eventual fourth-place finisher, was hit from 9-2 to 5-2 in one flash.

As developments concerning the rigged Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick Six come to light daily, there is quite naturally a good degree of skepticism that someone is somehow betting after the bell and creating these sudden odds drops.

But even assuming that everything is on the up-and-up, bettors still need to have some idea what the odds are going to be in the final minute or so of the wagering period. Without a close approximation of the odds, after all, how are handicappers supposed to make intelligent decisions?

According to NYRA vice president Bill Nader, the above events were due to a combination of factors, and steps are being taken to reduce their frequency and intensity.

For example, the late punches on Classic Endeavor and Personable Pete both came from a betting hub in Lewiston, Maine, that processes bets from St. Kitts in the West Indies - where racebooks offer rebates to big bettors. Once racing shifts to the inner-dirt track on Dec. 4, however, NYRA will close wagering from its simulcast sites when the first horse enters the gate. Ontrack players, whose bets go into the pools in real time, will still be able to bet until the gates open. Nader explained that a second corrective measure will be to fix the interface between the infield toteboard and the closed-circuit TV system, where there is currently a delay of 30-35 seconds before a change on the infield board is registered on television monitors. Of course, those TV monitors are where the vast majority of bettors get their information about odds.

"Those two steps should alleviate a good portion of the problem," said Nader. "In almost every case, odds should be final at the start of the race. If we think further steps are necessary, we'll be in a position to take further action."