Updated on 09/15/2011 12:14PM

Multiple tickets best way to play pick four

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The pick four is back in vogue, and justifiably so, considering how much of a bargain it can be.

The bet has caught on quickly at Belmont since introduced at the start of the meet, and Wednesday's sequence makes it easy to see why. The winners paid $9.20, $5.10, $6.30, and $21.20, and the $2 pick four payoff was $1,576, or just over twice the parlay. The $21.20 winner was a first-time-turf horse with a 308 Tomlinson in an entry-level allowance for New York-breds, which was a very logical place to "spread."

Of course, few bettors play four-horse win parlays, but the point is the pick four offers real opportunities for those looking to score out on relatively small investments.

What makes the pick four so attractive is that, unlike the pick six, it is affordable for the typical bankroll. Yet it is costlier than the pick three, so strategy takes on more importance. Where $27 will get you a 3x3x3 ticket on a pick three, the same coverage in a pick four, 3x3x3x3, costs $81.

Putting in a single $81 ticket on that 3x3x3x3 combination has two problems:

* It is an 81-combination wager that makes no distinction as to the relative strength of the contenders.

* When was the last time four consecutive races looked like they could be locked up by using three horses in each leg?

More likely is this scenario: In two legs, you're trying to catch lightning in a bottle by taking shots against legit-looking favorites. The other two races are cavalry charges that practically anyone can win. Instead of a 3x3x3x3 ticket containing a total of a dozen horses for $81, why not take a stand with the two solid favorites and reach deeper in the inscrutable heats? In that case, the same $81 buys a 1x1x9x9 ticket. When form prevails in the straightforward races, you can sit back and root for some real fireworks in your spread races.

If you're a traditional win bettor at heart, the pick four provides a potentially lucrative alternative. A winning $150 bet on an 8-5 shot earns you a week's worth of groceries and the nickname "Chalk-eating Weasel." The same $150 singling the 6-5 in a 1x5x5x6 pick four has the potential to get you into a new Lexus.

As with the pick six, however, the proper strategy usually involves filling out multiple tickets. This enables you to weigh the overall play in terms of how you've ranked the contenders, differentiating between "main" and "back-up" contenders. For example, if each leg has two "most likely to win" horses and four "marginal" horses, it's problematical to go 6x6x6x6 for $1,296. It's usually superfluous, too, because it's unlikely all four races will be won by fringe horses. We don't know which race will produce a winning marginal contender, but by plugging in back-ups we can reduce the cost to $144, and allow for that possibility without eliminating any of the price horses from the play. In this case, the first ticket would be a 2x2x2x2 ticket ($16) with all the "main" horses. Four additional tickets at $32 each (4x2x2x2, 2x4x2x2, 2x2x4x2, 2x2x2x4) substitute the back-ups in each leg.

For another example, consider Saturday's $200,000 guaranteed pick four on races 8-11 at Pimlico, a four-stakes sequence climaxed by the Preakness. The program numbers of my contenders look like this:

8th: 1,7,8,9 (Waited, Grundlefoot, Perfect Cat, Rize)

9th: 1,2,3,8 (Quiet Resolve, Make No Mistake, North East Bound, Hap)

10th: 1,2,3,6,7 (Delaware Township, Istintaj, Flamethrower, Explicit, Disco Rico)

11th: 5,7,11 (Congaree, Monarchos, Point Given)

One $1 ticket using all of these is a 4x4x5x3 costing $240, which is more than I'm willing to spend. But by designating two keys in each leg and insisting that they win any three of the races, the cost is reduced to $80.

My keys are Perfect Cat and Rize, Quiet Resolve and North East Bound, Delaware Township and Istintaj, and Congaree and Point Given.

I'll buy a 2x2x2x2 "main" ticket with these key choices for $16. I will also purchase two more $16 tickets replacing my keys with two alternates in the first leg and second leg; a $24 ticket plugging in three alternates in the third leg; and an $8 ticket plugging in my one alternate in the Preakness.

The beauty of the pick four is that even with four pretty logical horses, a winning ticket is still well worth having. With one or two fringe winners thrown into the mix, it can become a memorable score.