07/02/2002 11:00PM

No shady dealings in odds plunges


NEW YORK - It has become common at some racetracks. A front-running 7-2 shot is rounding the turn for home when his odds suddenly drop to 2-1. The horse goes on to win, leaving ticket holders to complain bitterly about mysterious gamblers who are getting bets down after the bell.

The phenomenon, called a late-odds change, is shaking some bettors' confidence in horse racing. Many of the drops are occurring long after the horses have left the gate, and in some cases in Florida, horseplayers have complained that odds are dropping between the time the horses pass the finish line and when official prices are posted.

To some horseplayers, the answer is simple: Someone, somewhere, is making bets after the horses leave the gate, placing massive wagers to win on front-running horses who did not have trouble at the start.

"I get the phone calls all the time," said Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board. "We explain that we have a very good system in place and that it's not possible to place a bet after the machines lock. Some people say, 'Thanks, that was nice of you,' but others say, 'I don't believe it,' and that's it. There's nothing you can say to convince them otherwise."

According to racing officials, the current checks and balances put in place to regulate betting and the tote system make it nearly impossible to place a bet after the gates open. The late-odds changes, officials say, are simply the consequence of the flood of money that comes in just before the post, which requires time to calculate and transfer the final odds.

"The system is unforgiving," said Wes Angerville, the manager of Autotote's operations at Belmont Park. "When betting stops, it stops, everywhere."

Checks and balances

Certainly, the perceptions of late-odds changes are reinforced by racing's unsavory history with past-post wagering. It wasn't so long ago that betting rings at some tracks paid unscrupulous tellers to keep their machines open for several seconds after the post.

But those days are long gone, officials say, because of a sophisticated totalizator network that locks the machines and time-stamps all bets. In fact, racing officials said, the only way to bet after the race starts would be to take down the communications link between the host track and the simulcast site, place bets on the simulcast machines, and then convince the host track's mutuel department to allow the affected bets back into the pools - all the while hoping that no one ever asked to see ticket reports from the simulcast site's individual machines.

That might not sound so difficult. In fact, communications links between host tracks and simulcast sites go down all the time, totalizator officials said. But a system of controls put in place about 10 years ago - mostly to handle the enormous growth in interstate betting - and refined over the years has convinced most racing officials that any past-posting scheme would be easily tripped up.

"If it's a system failure, it's an easy check to follow up, and if the track is vigilant, it's very easy to monitor," said Chris Scherf, the executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group.

At most U.S. tracks, the signal to stop betting comes from the state steward at a host track. At Belmont, for example, the steward has to press a button twice. That signal is relayed instantly to the tote room, where it is then forwarded to every machine in the country that is accepting bets on the track's signal. The stop-betting command is received nearly instantaneously throughout the network, tote officials said.

If the steward does not issue the stop-betting command, most tracks have back-up plans. At Belmont, a radio transmitter attached to the gate sends a signal to the tote room that the gate has opened. The signal tells the tote system to lock if the signal has not yet come from the steward.

If the radio signal is not received, two employees in the tote room are on the lookout. A "no-lock" call goes out, and the operators shut the system manually. And if those two operators don't notice, tote companies employ technicians at other tracks to monitor signals from the host track for lock failures.

Tote employees are reluctant to admit it, but those lines of defense break down occasionally. In New Jersey, the racing commission has collected fines and settlement fees from Autotote, the only tote company doing business in New Jersey, of $16,500 for five instances over the past four years in which the machines were not locked on a timely basis, according to Mike Vukcevich, the commission's deputy director.

But Vukcevich said that no one was ever accused of making past-post bets because of those failures. Vukcevich also said that no incidents had occurred in the past two years.

"When you look at the amount of signals that Autotote handles, it's incredibly minute," Vukcevich said. "But we perceived it as a developing problem and a potentially embarrassing situation, so we threw a lot of effort at it and started imposing fairly substantial penalties, and that seemed to clean it up."

The trickier situations, racing regulators and officials said, are communications failures. Occasionally, a simulcast site will lose contact with a host site, preventing the transmission of any information. The failure usually lasts only seconds before the link is restored. But sometimes the link is down when the stop-betting command is issued, creating problems.

If the failure occurs at post time, the machines at the disconnected simulcast site still shut down even though they don't receive the stop-betting command from the host. The key piece of information in this process is the host track's expected post time. At the beginning of the day, simulcast machines receive a list of the day's probable post times from the host tracks. Under a programming change that was put into effect two years ago, the machines lock if the link with the host is down when there is zero minutes to post.

Even though the simulcast machines automatically lock, the site's wagers are not automatically allowed into the host track's pools if the link was not up at the time the stop-betting command was transmitted. In most cases, the link is restored quickly, and a quick check can verify that the betting numbers are accurate. The tote system accepts the numbers and makes the final calculations.

But in other cases, the link cannot be restored quickly, so the host track and the simulcast site have to reach a solution in order to post accurate track prices. Most of the time, the host track will accept a fax of the wagering details from the simulcast site and enter the figures into the pools manually. But in others, the host site will tell the simulcast site that any wagers made after the link went down are the simulcast site's responsibility.

An identification trail is supposed to ensure that the simulcast site can't forge the figures it provides to the host site. Each machine is connected to a network hub, which assigns a unique number to each bet. Among other information, the exact time that each bet was placed is recorded. Tote officials said that they had uncovered no instances of reports being altered, and they also said that reports could be cross-referenced with other information to verify their authenticity.

"It's all on the ticket reports," said David Payton, an Autotote official. "If you are unsure, you can always go back and look at the available documentation."

So what's happening?

If no one is betting past post, then why are odds changing during a race? Tote officials point to two factors: the dramatic influx of late money - currently, two-thirds of the handle is bet in the last two minutes before post - and the tote cycle, which is the way the system crunches and consolidates the massive amounts of data from the host track's network of simulcast sites.

The cycle is currently initiated every 60 seconds. It starts when the host track asks for all of the machines in the network to transmit the information for the wagers placed since the last cycle. Information on win, place, and show wagers are transmitted nearly instantaneously, while two-leg wagers - daily doubles, exactas, and quinellas - take a bit longer. The biggest wagers, like trifectas, superfectas, and pick sixes - what tote officials call "scan bets" because of the enormous will-pay matrices - take even longer because of the many possible betting combinations.

After the system receives all the information, it consolidates the numbers and begins calculating the payoffs. When the calculations are complete, the host site's system transmits the final odds and payoffs to all the simulcast sites. Only when all the sites have received the information will the final odds be displayed.

"If we didn't do it that way, then the people on-track would see the results much quicker than the people off-site," said Victor Harrison, an official with United Tote. "That's an unfair advantage."

At Belmont Park on a recent Friday, the calculations for win, place, and show odds for the 12-horse fifth race took 44 seconds to be completed, meaning win odds did not reflect all the betting information until nearly halfway through the 1 1/4-mile race. Calculations for the other pools took 1 minute, 26 seconds, or 35 seconds before the race ended.

Tote officials said the final updates could not be completed any faster under today's technology. "We're working with the laws of physics," Autotote's Payton said. "It's not the calculations. It's that there's no way to instantaneously transfer all that information."

An extra step in Florida

Tote officials said the late-odds phenomenon is most noticeable in Florida - and for a good reason: Florida, like Illinois, Colorado, and Arizona, has regulations requiring all bets to be consolidated at one local site before being forwarded to the host site. That creates an additional step in the calculation process, referred to by tote officials as a double-hop.

"You can sit there and watch the board and see that as everyone else is finishing up, someone in a double-hop situation is just coming up as final," said Jeff Murphy, United Tote's director of operations. "The time effect nearly doubles."

That would partly explain several jaw-dropping odds changes at Calder Race Course this summer. Ask Me Again, a horse in the first race on June 1 at Calder, was 22-1 when the gates opened but 12-1 when crossing the finish line. In the fifth race on June 10. Vidlocity was 18-1 in the gate but 10-1 at the final change. Both were front-runners.

Ken Dunn, the president of Calder, said his mutuel managers have vigorously investigated the late changes and discovered nothing unscrupulous. But he remains concerned, and he is now urging industry officials to do something about the phenomenon, which he said is jeopardizing the perception of the game.

"Most people will argue that perception is just as important as fact or reality," Dunn said. "In this case, even the most sophisticated person, we can explain it to him, and he will say, 'I understand,' but then once he walks out the door, he says, 'Yeah, but . . .' There's still some level of skepticism. So we have to do everything in our power to correct the perception, because there's no problem with the system's integrity."

- Reprinted from DRF Simulcast Weekly