09/12/2013 3:40PM

Steven Crist: Stars align with new exotic bets in New York


Innovations in racetrack wagering are so rare that when two new bets made their debuts during opening week at Belmont Park, it was as if Halley’s Comet had returned to our solar system twice in a week instead of waiting 75 years between visits.

First, when the track opened last Saturday, there was its inaugural pick five on the day’s first five races. Granted, it took almost two years from proposal to inception due =to inexcusable regulatory intransigence and bureaucratic delays, but it’s finally here and players warmed up to it quickly.

The Saturday sequence of five winners your grandmother could have picked on her first visit to a track paid a healthy $780 for $2, or $195 for the 50-cent minimum bet at which most combinations were sold. That $780 payoff also was $83 higher than it would have been were the bet not being offered with a 15 percent takeout rather than the usual 24 percent rake on superexotic bets in New York. The pool was $238,514, sharply higher than the $176,019 wagered on the daily double on the first two races, or the $123,836 wagered on the pick three of the first three races.

On Sunday, a less grandmotherly procession of winners including victors at 7-1 and 18-1, returned $34,384 for $2, or $8,596 for 50 cents. The pool was $212,466, again outhandling the daily double, which drew $142,539, and the early pick three at $59,404. Remarkably, it also outhandled the pick six both days ($67,888 on Saturday, $164,822 on Sunday), even when there was a $43,071 carryover into Sunday’s card.

This quick embrace of the new wager suggested several things. First, customers will respond to innovation, especially when it is presented in the form of offering them a better deal. This is a pretty common precept in every other business, but a rare one at the track. Second, it showed that it is possible to design wagers that address specific customer needs – in this case, to give modestly bankrolled players a realistic chance at participating competitively in the kind of multirace bets with big payoffs that are so popular with more free-spending players.

The differences between a $2 pick six and a 50-cent pick five are even bigger than they sound. Three things take it from an expensive and daunting wager to an affordable and manageable one: Making it one race shorter cuts down on the number of combinations by a factor of two or three; reducing the minimum bet by 75 percent significantly reduces the cost of entry; and, as a nice kicker, a 15 rather than 24 percent takeout rate is like a 10 percent bonus on the payoff.

It is a much better bet than the pick six on most days for most customers, but this does not mean that the major circuits that can support healthy pick six pools as well should discontinue that bet. On the third day of the meeting, this past Wednesday, the pick five handled $165,628, about the drop-off you would expect for a weekday, but the pick six handled $502,523, because there was a $137,011 carryover. The pick six remains the one bet where handle can octuple from a Saturday to a Wednesday, solely because of the carryover provision. There’s room for both, and now the average player can have the same fun as a pick-six whale, navigating his way through a series of races at a sharply reduced cost and higher rate of payout.

The second new bet, which was scheduled to begin Thursday, is a different sort of creature with murkier prospects of success: a conventional pick four linking races from two disparate tracks, Belmont and Penn National. It will be offered every Thursday on the last two races from Belmont and the first two from Penn, and again with a 15  percent rather than 24 percent takeout, and a 50-cent minimum.

It remains to be seen how many Belmont customers have been waiting their whole lives to combine their opinions on the track they regularly handicap with one they rarely look at, but the sheer novelty of the concept deserves applause for, at the very least, showing that a modicum of cooperation between tracks is even possible.

There should be a dozen of these multitrack opportunities – Saratoga and Del Mar, or Belmont Fall and Keeneland Fall are obvious candidates – and of course it’s a glaring omission that there’s no national pick-whatever bet combining the top races from around the country every Saturday afternoon. Giving people what they want at a price that makes them feel like they’re getting a break – that sounds dangerously close to a winning business strategy.