Updated on 09/16/2011 7:28AM

Superfecta way to stir up excitement

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WASHINGTON - Almost every business has habitually tried to develop new products.

Automobile manufacturers introduce new models. Drug companies develop new medications. Restaurants put new items on the menu.

Yet there is one industry that rarely offers customers anything different and barely has a clue about what those customers might like. The American parimutuel business has offered the same staples (win, place, and show) for nearly a century. Its most popular products, exacta and trifecta betting, date to the 1970's. Its most innovative and exciting wager, the pick six with a carryover jackpot, originated in the 1980's.

If racetrack operators were like other business owners, they would continually look for new ideas that could stimulate their customers' interest. And if they looked alertly, they would see a bright idea right under their noses in this year's Triple Crown series.

Anyone who studies betting statistics can readily conclude what American horseplayers like. Above all, they love big betting pools with the potential for huge payoffs. When a racetrack offers a wager (usually a pick six) with a giant carryover pool, the atmosphere at the track is invariably electric. One week ago, the existence of a carryover at Hollywood Park stimulated its fans - and simulcast customers across the country - to wager $1.7 million, and the lucky winners cashed tickets worth nearly $80,000 apiece.

Such pools arise most often when bettors have missed the pick six for a day or two at the California tracks, which have a core of pick-six enthusiasts. But no other state has been able to replicate California's successful pick-six experience. Indeed, the pick six has not been a broadly popular wager because modern bettors tend to prefer wagering on a single race.

In the era of simulcasting, when players are confronted with a menu of 100 or more races, few plan their action so far ahead that they want to play a pick six, pick four, or pick three. Even a two-race wager, the traditional daily double, has become almost passe. At every track in America, bettors wager more money on exactas and trifectas than on daily doubles and pick threes, and this fact of life has hindered the development of high-paying exotic wagers.

I used to think that the superfecta, which requires a bettor to pick the first four finishers in order, would become a popular exotic wager, but it hasn't. In an average field with 10 or so horses, the payoff on a superfecta won't usually be high enough to make horseplayers obsessed about hitting it.

But at Churchill Downs on May 4, the superfecta was an extraordinary bet. Churchill altered its rules governing the Kentucky Derby to allow 20 separate betting interests (with no stable entries or parimutuel "field") and a 20-horse race is a betting extravaganza. Prior to two late scratches, the 20-horse field could have produced 116,280 possible outcomes in the superfecta. Even if the results weren't outlandish, a handicapper could easily envision collecting a payoff of 50,000-1 or more if he picked the top four finishers.

Every serious player I knew was focused on the Derby superfecta because it might reward normal handicapping logic with a bonanza. Horseplayers around the country wagered nearly $4 million on the Derby superfecta, and the winners collected $91,764.50 on a $1 ticket. Two weeks later, the Preakness wasn't quite so wide open, with a 13-horse field, but bettors wagered nearly $3 million and collected a $6,701 payoff with the favorite War Emblem winning.

The racing industry should view the Derby superfecta not as a once-a-year exception but as a model. And the key to making a superfecta popular is to run it with a larger-than-normal field because its potential payoff will be so much higher. The number of possible combinations in a 16-horse field is eight times larger than in a 10-horse field.

A track such as Churchill Downs or Belmont Park, with a racing strip wide enough to accommodate oversized fields, could schedule occasional, special superfecta races, putting up a large purse that would attract a competitive, extra-large field. (If, for example, it offered a $75,000 pot for a $20,000 claiming race, it would attract every decent $20,000 claiming horse in the vicinity.)

The wager would not only stimulate the interest of every serious handicapper, it could be priced at $1 or even 50 cents to attract the lottery players that the industry has always coveted. With the proper promotion and advertising, a 20-horse superfecta bet could become to the U.S. what the tierce (an elaborate trifecta with a 24-horse field) has been to France: a wager that galvanizes the nation, horseplayers and non-horseplayers alike.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post