01/29/2004 1:00AM

Is the new Magna 5 bet worth playing?


Aside from sheer entertainment, the only sensible time to make a bet is when the potential reward outweighs the risk.

It's not a complicated decision for horseplayers who bet primarily to win - simply wager on horses whose wagering odds are substantially higher than their chances.

For pick six players, reward often outweighs risk when a carryover is attached. It's a sensible time to make the bet, when the amount paid to winning pick six bettors will exceed the amount wagered that day, due to a carryover from the previous day.

Risk-reward imbalance goes further than win overlays in pick six carryovers, due to the sheer number of betting choices. Beyond basic handicapping, winning requires imagination. For example, many pick four bettors employ creative strategy that includes multiple back-up tickets. Those bettors regularly hold an advantage over bland, single-ticket horseplayers who invest the same amount of money.

It is not enough to be a good handicapper to win playing the pick six. One also must be a smart bettor.

The Magna 5, a pick five that debuts Saturday, provides motivation for horseplayers to be both good and smart. The wager links five races at four Magna tracks (Laurel, Gulfstream Park, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita), to be run in a span of a little more than one hour. The Magna 5 requires picking the winners of all five races. Winners split the pool, minus 22 percent takeout. If there are no winning tickets, 25 percent of the net pool is paid to tickets with the most winners; 75 percent carries over to next Saturday.

It is not a user-friendly wager. The $2 minimum will price many bettors right out of the market. It is already tough enough to win the $1 pick four when all four races are run at one track. Even a $2 pick six frequently includes one or more standouts and a sprinkling of small fields at one track. But the initial Magna 5 includes five races at four racetracks, with large and competitive fields. Magna made its initial pick five mighty difficult, perhaps excessively.

An investment of at least $200 may be required to have even a small chance of winning. Unless there is a logical single in the five-race sequence, bettors may need to use at least two horses in each leg merely to cover top contenders. That would be a $64 play (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 - 32 combinations at $2 each). Yet that wager allows very little margin for error. By adding multiple backup tickets that allow a bettor to "miss" one of the legs and remain alive, the cost quickly reaches $200 or more.

There is also the nasty issue of takeout rate. At 22 percent, the rate is 3 percent lower than exotic takeout rates at many East Coast locales, yet 2 percent higher than the exotic takeout rate in California, where two of the five races will be run. When the Magna 5 debuts Saturday with a 22 percent takeout, it will have the dubious honor of being the most expensive wager in California.

The bottom line - the Magna 5 is difficult to win, expensive to play, and heavily taxed.

And yet, there may be logical reasons to look closely at the wager before writing it off.

The first positive reason may or may not be valid. No one knows how much the bet will handle Saturday. The only certainty is there will be $500,000 in the pool; Magna has guaranteed that, and has taken out an insurance policy to cover a shortfall. So the question is, how much of the $500,000 will be "real" money? If only $400,000 is wagered, the insurance will kick in and cover the additional $100,000. That would nearly cover the 22 percent takeout and effectively turn the Magna Pick 5 into a zero-takeout wager.

If only $300,000 is wagered into the pool, insurance will kick in the additional $200,000. The total paid to winning bettors - assuming there is a winning bettor - would then exceed the amount wagered. It would be a positive expectation situation, even without a carryover.

Bettors who doubt the bet will handle $500,000 should consider playing if they have money and time to take a serious swing. It would require an investment of at least $200 and a multiple-ticket strategy session of at least 30 minutes.

Of course, if no one wins the bet this Saturday, the carryover into next Saturday will make the next risk-reward decision a whole lot easier.

After all, there are really only two reasons to make a bet. The first is when the potential reward outweighs the risk. The second reason is sheer entertainment.

The inaugural Magna 5 on Saturday may qualify on neither account. Or both.