Updated on 09/17/2011 8:49PM

Not quite high on Magna 5


NEW YORK - I am undefeated for life playing the Magna 5, but only because my handle to date is precisely $0. That may change this Saturday, though, as two of the three things that have kept me out of the pool have disappeared.

This national pick five wager on winter Saturdays, composed of races from Magna tracks around the country, has been a mixed success since making its debut a year ago. The bet is handling right around its guaranteed level of $500,000, which isn't bad but could still be much better with some tinkering.

When the bet made its 2005 debut on Jan. 29, I was going to give it a whirl despite my reservations. Then I hit the worst example yet of one of its recurring drawbacks. The first three legs were stakes races from Laurel, Santa Anita, and Gulfstream. So far, so good. Then the fourth leg was a 3-year-old maiden race from Golden Gate, featuring four first-time starters. Putting this completely unattractive race into the sequence, especially in a slot that gave the public no opportunity to see the betting on the firsters, turned the entire five-race proposition into a guessing game, and stopped me cold from playing. (Not an entirely a bad thing as it turned out, since I could not have used Musique Toujours at $142.20 in the last leg with counterfeit money.)

The year's second Magna 5, on Feb. 5, featured a similarly poor choice of races. The Gulfstream fare was excellent, with the Donn and Holy Bull, but the two California events were a $32,000 maiden claimer and an open low-level claimer. It was enough to make you wish that Golden Gate were still open. Presumably, part of the point of the Magna 5 is to make people in other markets look at racing from a place like Santa Anita and perhaps play it more often, but these two races were the worst possible advertisement for Southern California racing.

The second thing that has kept me away from the Magna 5, and otherwise depressing its pools, was not even apparent to me until I tried to play the year's third edition Feb. 12. The lineup was an acceptable mix of a Laurel stakes and two solid races each from Gulfstream and Santa Anita, so I figured out a small play and picked up the phone to NYRA-One to make my belated Magna 5 debut.

"Laurel, race 10," I began, and the operator nicely stopped me from wasting any more breath.

"We don't take that Magna 5," she explained. "You're like the seventh person who's called me today about this."

Beginning this Saturday, though, NYRA is handling the bet. So with that, and a good lineup this week - there are two races from Laurel, but they're the Campbell and the Barbara Fritchie - I'm down to one excuse.

The Magna 5 is obviously more than a pick four and less than a pick six, but it seems to combine the worst rather than best of both wagers, rarely producing an enticing carryover but still priced too high for many smaller bettors. One of two changes should be made.

One option is to drop the minimum from $2 to $1, the unit that has made the pick four such a popular bet. Giving people twice as many combinations for the same amount of money will increase their interest and chance of cashing. It also will stop taking so much money out of circulation via federal withholding taxes. A lot of Magna 5's have paid off in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, which triggers withholding on a $2 ticket but none on a $1 ticket.

The other way to go is to introduce a consolation payout for 4 of 5 on days when there are winning 5-of-5 tickets. When there was one winning ticket with Musique Toujours, one person got $406,985 and everyone else got zilch. Why not go 75/25 on the distribution and give the lone genius a mere $305,238 and each of maybe 100 4-of-5 tickets a little over $1,000 each? The winner will still have enough after taxes for a few hot meals, and 100 other people will stay in action that much longer and probably come back to fight again next week.

So maybe I'll stay out of the pool until one of those two things happens. It's always nice to be undefeated at something.