12/23/2003 1:00AM

Is the pick four still a worthwhile wager?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Only three years have passed since the pick four was introduced to the Southern California wagering menu at the Hollywood Park 2000 autumn race meet. The pick four - a $1 wager that requires picking the winners of four consecutive races - quickly became one of the most popular specialty bets on the menu, for good reasons.

Only moderate bet size is required, relatively high win rates are attainable, and sizable payoffs are expected. It gives bettors three logical incentives to play. Reasonable handicappers wagering $100 daily on the pick four can expect to win every five or six days, and receive a payoff that typically exceeds $500. The pick four, positioned on the final four races of the card, also gives small bettors a chance at a big score. Even an $18 play consisting of one single, another race with two horses, and two races with three, can be a feasible winner.

Yet as Santa Anita enters the first weekend of the long winter meet, there is some evidence that the Southern California pick four is losing its sizzle. Blame it on shrinking field size, declining quality, or increasing savvy of horseplayers. The reality is, pick four payoffs are in a state of decline.

The sag was most evident last summer at Del Mar, which was unexpected because of the meet's reputation for competitive racing. Over the past three years, the pick four median (half the payoffs higher and half lower) at Del Mar has declined from $1,277 to $1,037 to a mere $755 during the 2003 meet. Bettors who use the pick four as a focal point of wagering strategy will be forced to re-evaluate the bet for the 2004 summer meet.

What's going on? Are the declining payoffs merely a statistical anomaly? A review of pick four payoffs the past year in Southern California suggests that bettors might need to lower their sights. Everywhere, perhaps except at Santa Anita. Based on the past two winter meets, Santa Anita may be the one track at which pick four bettors may aim for a four-figure payoff and consider it a reasonable goal. Almost anywhere else, bettors may as well try to lasso the moon.

Median pick four payoffs for 2003 race meets:

Hollywood summer$593

Del Mar$755

Oak Tree$1,103

Hollywood fall$492

Over the past two winter meets at Santa Anita, the median pick four payoff has increased. The comparison:

Santa Anita 2001-02$875

Santa Anita 2002-03$920

Surprisingly, the increased median last winter occurred despite a mild decrease in field size. During the 2001-02 meet, average field size at Santa Anita was 8.5 starters per race. During the 2002-03 meet, average field size was 8.2 starters per race. Field size matters. At the recently concluded fall meet at Hollywood Park, average field size was a diminutive 7.4 starters per race. No wonder the pick four median was only $492.

Santa Anita officials, and horseplayers, hope for the mild weather that typically accompanies the start of the winter meet, though an uncertain forecast placed some doubt on good weather for opening weekend. Last winter, the first wet track of the meet did not occur until the middle of February, after 35 racing days. By then, the pick four had produced several jackpot payoffs and a median of $1,038. But following the first wet track on Feb. 12, over a period that encompassed the last 50 days of the meet, the median payoff shrank to only $687.

The one-season sample from last winter is small, possibly too small on which to base a sensible wagering strategy. Yet short-term trends frequently are valid.

As the Santa Anita winter meet begins, an even stickier question faces pick four bettors - has the law of diminishing returns rendered the wager fruitless? Or will Santa Anita remain the exception?

According to the law of diminishing returns, "to continue after a certain level of performance has been reached will result in a decline in effectiveness."

In handicapping terms, it means that expending energy and capital on a particular wager, even after payoffs have reached a plateau, may result in a decline in returns.

After only three years in Southern California, perhaps the pick four has run its course. Either that, or bettors may need to adjust expectations downward over the next 3 1/2 months at Santa Anita.