Updated on 09/18/2011 1:10AM

National pick four goes under radar


NEW YORK - Four of Saturday's six Grade 1 or 2 stakes across the country will be hooked up in an NTRA Pick 4, the first of three straight Saturdays on which the bet will be presented by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

This week, it's the Kelso from Belmont, the Clement Hirsch and Yellow Ribbon from Santa Anita, and the Kentucky Cup Classic from Turfway. The Oct. 7 wager will combine the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup from Belmont, the Shadwell Turf Mile from Keeneland, and the Goodwood at Oak Tree. The year's final wager is on Oct. 14, consisting of the Champagne and Frizette from Belmont and the the First Lady and QEII Challenge Cup from Keeneland.

All 12 races over the next three Saturdays will be televised nationally as part of ESPN broadcasts, but it's understandable if this is the first you're hearing about these bets. The NTRA's recent cutback of staff and services has diverted resources from promoting these national wagers, and both the presenting and receiving tracks have never fully embraced them anyway. Ontrack announcements and graphics reminding patrons about the National Pick 4 are usually minimal, and track officials sometimes view and treat them as a confusing distraction from their own local pick fours although the numbers say otherwise.

The last such wager, an Aug. 12 sequence combining Arlington's Beverly D and Million with Saratoga's Vanderbilt and Sword dancer, handled $1,001,197. That was more than the amount handled that day in Arlington's two pick fours and Saratoga's two pick fours - combined.

Horseplayers unaware of the bets may also not realize that to date they have offered healthy payoffs and extraordinary value. There is a misconception that payoffs are skimpy because the top-class races sometimes attract short fields with heavy favorites, but in fact five of the seven payoffs from 2005 and 2006 have topped $1,000. The $2 returns in 2005 were $908, $2,603.20, $416, and $4,940. The first three payoffs this year were $3,062.80, $22,147, and $1,297.

More important, these pick fours have blown up the value of the individual winning horses, with payoffs far exceeding the parlay of each quartet of winners. Consider the results of this year's first three National Pick 4's:

* The April 15 sequence consisted of Gasia ($10) in the Instant Racing at Oaklawn, Sun King ($16.40) in the Commonwealth at Keeneland, Sinister Minister ($19.40) in the Blue Grass, and Lawyer Ron ($3) in the Arkansas Derby. The parlay of those four win prices is $1,193, and a pick four in this case might have come back short because of the victory of everyone's obvious single, Lawyer Ron, the only odds-on starter in the sequence. The pick-four payoff, however, was a whopping $3,062.80 for $2 - over two and a half times the parlay.

* The June 17 bet was a rough one because Seek Gold at $185.40 was a tough-to-like winner of the Stephen Foster at Churchill. Still, those who hooked him up with Take D' Tour ($8.70) in the Ogden Phipps at Belmont, Happy Ticket ($5) in the Fleur de Lis at Churchill and Dixie Meister ($14) in the Californian at Hollywood got $22,147 for $2, more than 50 percent above the parlay of $14,113.

* The Aug. 12 results of War Front ($5.50) in the Vanderbilt, Gorella ($4.60) in the Beverly D, Go Deputy ($15.40) in the Sword Dancer, and The Tin Man ($13) in the Million comes out to a $633 parlay including two favorites, but the National Pick 4 paid over twice as much at $1,297 for $2.

While admittedly a small sample, these results suggest that this is a bet worth more attention than its presenters are giving it.

Canadian grades hold up to scrutiny

Reference was recently made in this space to the supposedly suspect quality of Grade 1 races in Canada, which disassociated itself from the American Graded Stakes Committee a few years ago and began grading its own races. These aspersions stemmed from an outdated memory of times when provincial restricted races such as the Queen's Plate were designated as Grade 1 events.

In fact, Canada more recently has adopted perhaps the strictest graded-stakes criteria on the globe and now bestows an international Grade 1 ranking on only three of its races all year long: the Woodbine Mile, the E.P. Taylor, and the Canadian International. There is no question that these three stack up perfectly well with American Grade 1 equivalents such as the Shadwell Mile, John Mabee, and Sword Dancer.

I should have commended Canada for its honesty and rigor in grading its races, a refreshing difference from other nations, including this one, where Grade 1 opportunities often increase even while foal crops, total races, and field sizes continue to decline.