07/04/2007 11:00PM

Pick four gives you leverage

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ELMONT, N.Y. - A reader e-mailed regarding a recent column on the pick four:

"I am hoping that you can shed some light on an issue that always baffles me; specifically, the value of multi-race exotic payouts in relation to what a hypothetical parlay would pay. In this week's column, you mentioned the $2 payoff ($2,780) on last Saturday's all-stakes pick four at Churchill substantially exceeded what a $2 win parlay would pay ($1,068). While that is undoubtedly true, most bettors would not play the pick four like a win parlay. Instead, most bettors would play multiple tickets that would include lots of losing combinations. To state the obvious, don't these losing combinations seriously cut into ROI and profitability? For example, a $2 pick four ticket including four horses in each leg (not to suggest that's the best way to play the pick four) would have cost $512 for a return of $2,780 . . . but betting the full $512 on the longest-priced horse (Flashy Bull, $14.20) would have returned $3,550, and the same bet on the next longest-priced horse (Good Mood, $11) would have returned $2,816. If, for instance, you liked Good Mood enough to include her in a pick four ticket, wouldn't you have been better off simply betting her to win and not risking being right about her and getting bounced out in another race? Does the decision come down to whether Good Mood is a better value at 9-2 to win than she would be as part of a $512 pick four ticket(s) that might or might not pay 9-2 on the total amount bet?"

No bettors that I know of are in the habit of fashioning four-horse win parlays. Comparisons between parlays and multi-race exotic payoffs are made for two main reasons: To demonstrate the beneficial effect of having the parimutuel takeout spread over four (or however many) races, and to show how it is possible to obtain value by keying around short-priced horses that may not be overlays in the win pool, but which can nevertheless be leveraged into terrific value.

In pre-exotic days, a win bettor who thought a horse like Curlin was a cinch in the Arkansas Derby could do nothing except take 4-5 to win. But the Arkansas Derby was part of the NTRA's "Premier Pick 4" with the Instant Racing Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn and the Blue Grass and Commonwealth from Keeneland.

Bettors who loved Curlin, and who also thought the Instant Racing was enough of a crap shoot to wheel, had two key building blocks. The Commonwealth on Polytrack also looked to have a large handful of contenders, and the whole world knew Street Sense wouldn't be fully cranked three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. At a cost of $216, singling Curlin in a 1x4x6x9 play (with terrific coverage) returned $3,132; the same $216 bet to win on Curlin returned $388.

That play had a lot of losing combinations, but the mind-set in the pick four - once the key decision is made that it is worth playing - is "survive and advance." Playing excessive combinations in other exotic bets (such as boxing exactas) is usually a bad strategy, because you're using horses at equal strength without regard to any handicapping opinion; multiple tickets in the pick four allow you to weight the play accordingly. (By the way, most bettors do not play multiple tickets.)

The question of whether to bet horses like Flashy Bull and Good Mood to win or in the pick four is the best argument for maintaining separate bankrolls. Betting such horses depends, of course, on what price you've set as fair odds on your betting line, even if that line is only in your head. If you've pegged Good Mood at 5-1, she's no bet at 9-2; if you've set her at 3-1, she's a play.

Generally, if I'm singling someone in the pick four, I'm not looking to kill the world with 6-1 shots like Flashy Bull; 6-1 shots I like that much are win bets by definition. I'm looking for situations where horses in the low-odds range of 4-5 to 3-1 look rock solid, and are mixed up with two or three confusing and/or competitive races with bust-out potential.