11/29/2002 1:00AM

Pick six will-pays a must

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The current review of wagering procedures prompted by the Fix Six scandal will include an overhaul of the pick six scanning system that created a window for criminality. That change will also provide an opportunity to fix an illogical facet of pick six wagering that has annoyed and handicapped horseplayers since the bet was introduced to American racing in 1980: The lack of posted will-pays heading into the last leg.

If you play a daily double, pick three, or pick four at any track in the land, the winning price for each possible winning combination is posted almost immediately following the penultimate leg. At New York tracks, where the last race of the day is the final leg for all three of those bets, three different screens of these multi-race payoffs are displayed in a rotating cycle and everyone with live tickets knows exactly where he stands.

A race or two earlier, though, after the fifth race in the pick six has been run, no such information is forthcoming. People who play the equivalent of the pick six in places such as Peru and the Philippines get this information, but no American track posts it. Instead, players with a live ticket are forced to guess at what they might be in line to collect.

Unfortunately, the pick six is the one pool where guessing is least effective and will-pays are most important. While doubles and pick threes are usually going to pay within 20 percent of an easily computed parlay price, pick six payoffs can be far more volatile, even when Autotote employees are not altering tickets.

A sequence involving five obvious horses and a single bomb might be worth anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 or perhaps even a carryover if the pool was small and the bomb was big. Consolation 5-of-6 payoffs, which could be posted along with a 6-of-6 will-pay for each horse, are even harder to gauge and even more important for a greater number of players on any given day.

If you've put $96 into a pick six and you stand to collect two consolation tickets if the favorite wins the finale, wouldn't you like to know whether you're going to get back $100 or $1,000? If it's $100 and you really like the favorite, you might want to do more than sit back and root for a 4 percent and $4 profit. If it's more like $1,000 and you're already effectively getting 9-1 on a 4-5 shot, you might instead want to protect your position by hedging with a win bet on the likeliest upsetter.

Suppose you're alive to three of the five entrants in the final leg. Should you bet the other two to win if they're 8-1 and 12-1? How much should you bet? What are your three consolation tickets going to be worth if you miss? Posting probables would allow horseplayers to answer these questions correctly and to protect their bankrolls and mental health in these situations.

Historically there have been three arguments against posting pick six probables, none of them compelling.

The first is that it's more dramatic for the payoff to be a surprise. It would be more dramatic for every price to be a surprise but that's not a good argument for eliminating tote boards. People deserve to know where they stand.

The second is that posting the probables might lead to some sort of chicanery - that if a bettor knew he had the only live ticket in a big pool he might run to the paddock and start bribing people to scratch their horses or pull a fire alarm. (I don't dream these things up - that concern comes directly from an actual racing commissioner.) Putting aside how farfetched this is, it does not seem to have been a problem with the routine posting of five- and six-digit pick four probables in the last two years.

The final argument was that the tote companies could not provide the information on a sufficiently timely basis since, remember, the live tickets weren't even being forwarded until it was time to post the probables. With any luck, that argument won't be on the table much longer. Posting probables, and perhaps even announcing the number of live tickets after every leg, would provide badly needed reassurance about the integrity of pick six pools going forward.

Track operators should embrace this idea, as it would likely lead not only to happier customers but also to increased handle. The current lack of information ties players' hands, whereas knowing their true financial prospects would probably spur them to invest further to enhance and protect their positions.

It also will make for far better bad-beat stories. When you're alive to a longer-priced horse than the winner you didn't use, you can only imagine what might have been. This way, you can authoritatively whine about the horrendous $8,762 photo you lost. Your story remains one that no one actually wants to hear, but at least it will have the ring of truth.