10/08/2010 12:51PM

Stronach's Quadruple Quadfecta a bad gimmick bet


NEW YORK – When Frank Stronach testified before the California Horse Racing Board last June, the chairman of MI Developments, owner of Santa Anita and other tracks, spoke in generalities about how the sport needed changes. Board members pressed him for a specific example or proposal, and he finally came up with one:

“A quadruple quadfecta,” said Stronach. “That’s maybe why we could offer a $20 million jackpot.”

Eyes were dutifully rolled and everyone promptly forgot about the QQ until this past week, when MI Developments officials said they were moving to implement the fanciful wager as soon as this winter at Gulfstream and perhaps Santa Anita.

As best as anyone can tell, the Quadruple Quadfecta would require bettors to select four superfecta outcomes in advance, a challenge that makes hitting the Powerball lottery, much less a pick six, look like child’s play. In a 10-horse field, there are 5,040 possible superfecta combinations (10x9x8x7). Square that and picking two cold supers in advance is a 25,401,600-1 shot. Leg 3 increases that another 5,000-fold to around 125 billion to 1, and the final super outcome sends it into the trillions. Good luck.

Ever since the 1970s, when state lotteries began to overtake horse racing in popularity, racing has periodically asked itself whether it can compete with the ping-pong balls by offering some kind of bet with a massive jackpot. It’s a reasonable question, but no one has come up with a workable idea.

Some would say that the pick six is a lottery-like bet, but that’s not really the case. There are only a handful of seven-digit pools every year, and if favorites dominate the six-race sequence, the payoff can be less than $1,000. Moreover, these pools are driven by well-heeled, serious horseplayers who approach it as a winnable proposition, not by civilians stabbing at lucky numbers.

The QQ is doomed to fail for many reasons beyond its impossible odds. It is a difficult bet to understand and to make (just imagine calling one out), and its limited availability through the parimutuel system can’t begin to compete with lottery sales at gas stations, newsstands, and convenience stores.

What tracks instead should be exploring are partnerships with the state lotteries, where perhaps the equivalent of the “supplemental number” that determines some jackpots could be the result of a single horse race, with a dozen finalists each assigned a horse in a big race. Racing could get a slice of the lottery sales and racing could get some publicity.

Thinking that horseplayers are going to start wagering on trillion-to-1 shots shows a fundamental misunderstanding of racing’s appeal and its customer base. People enjoy wagering on horses, whether they are show bettors or trifecta hunters, because they believe they are more skillful than the competition sitting next to them and because there is a reasonable risk-reward ratio. Even those unconcerned with the bottom line, willing to lose in exchange for the entertainment value of handicapping and watching races, want to bet on their opinions and perceptions, not on 16 random numbers.

Stronach deserves credit for trying new things, but the past performances say that wagering innovations are not his strongest suit.

He sunk tens of millions of dollars into the Sunshine Millions racing series in the mistaken belief that bettors were eager to wager on competition between teams of California-bred and Florida-breds. Stronach’s tracks championed the generally unpopular Super High-5, a wager based on the premise that horseplayers found superfectas insufficiently challenging and wanted to spend their time figuring out who could run fifth in a race. He also is the father of Horse Wizards, horse-themed slot machines that stood neglected at his tracks where he insisted they be installed.

On the other hand, many horseplayers and horsemen are feeling grateful to Stronach these days for the perhaps inadvertent results of a couple of his other recent decisions. The return of dirt racing to Santa Anita this winter after four rocky years of a state-madated experiment with synthetic racing surfaces will probably prove a boon to the racing there. (There was a scary hitch in that plan, with Stronach talking as recently as August about installing a completely unproven synthetic surface from Austria, but he ultimately made the decision to return to real dirt.)

And while Stronach’s decision to cancel his lease with the Oak Tree Racing Association has thrown the 2011 California racing schedule into chaos, it at least temporarily derailed an ill-advised plan to relocate the Breeders’ Cup permanently to California, which would have alienated many of the event’s fans and participants.

So maybe there will be some unforeseen silver lining to the Quadruple Quadfecta – though it’s difficult to imagine one just now.