07/26/2007 11:00PM

There are ways to ease bettor fears

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - When the opening-day cards at Del Mar on July 18 and Saratoga on July 25 featured plenty of difficult longshot winners but there was a single winner of the pick six both days, eyebrows shot skyward from San Diego to Saratoga Springs. Horseplayers, paranoid by nature and experience, wondered whether the old Drexel gang that tried to fix the 2002 Breeders' Cup was back and hacking again.

There is absolutely no evidence that anything but luck led to those two hits, just as there is absolutely no evidence that anyone is betting after the start of races just because it sometimes seems that gate-beating speed horses are the ones whose odds drop most sharply during races. Yet reality is almost besides the point. Nearly five years after the Fix Six scandal at Arlington, there has been little visible technological progress in ensuring the integrity of parimutuel wagering, and even less progress on addressing the perception that betting pools are vulnerable to tampering.

Odds changes during the running of a race are simply unacceptable, no matter how many times officials swear that everything is on the up and up. Personally I believe them, but I also understand why customers go ballistic over situations such as the sixth race at Hollywood July 13. Roar in Solana, a maiden claimer who had never shown significant early speed, was 6-1 as the horses were being loaded, 5-1 when she outbroke the 13 rivals to her inside, and 7-2 by the time she had finished wiring the field by daylight. Track officials can explain the intricacies of hubs and merged pools and betting cycles until they're blue in the face, but it looks to the average customer like someone's cheating.

The shame of it is that it's so easy to fix. In the aftermath of the 2002 Breeders' Cup, a few tracks cautiously closed all betting with either a minute to post or when the first horse was loaded into the gate. This was the right thing to do, and the only mistake they made was rescinding the policy a couple of weeks later, due to complaints from a small but noisy group of customers who claimed they really needed to be able to bet up until the last possible moment. Why? Betting a bit earlier would require a period of adjustment, and we would all get shut out a time or two before getting used to it, but if this were a uniform policy throughout the game, the issue would disappear. Imagine racing where the odds you saw on the tote board when the gate opened were exactly the same as the odds when the horses crossed the wire. What a concept.

Suspicions about pick six past-posting could be allayed by more and better disclosure about winning tickets. Just saying that a lone winning ticket was sold through a Maine or Oregon hub, as some tracks do, does nothing to allay horseplayers' fears that someone is singling the first four winners after the races have been run. Hollywood did a great job tracking down and releasing the details of the winning tickets sold on its record carryover pool July 2. This sort of transparency can only help the game appear to be on the level.

Instead, some tracks act as if finding out where and when a particular ticket was sold is an impossible high-tech mission. I don't pretend to understand all the ins and outs of it, but the information obviously exists somewhere since it is the basis for all financial settlements between a host track and all its simulcast outlets. When I worked at the New York Racing Association more than a decade ago, every morning I got a massive dot-matrix printout on that old green-striped computer paper, showing what every outlet had bet on each pool on each race and what we owed them or they owed us. Presumably the technology, like the printouts, is incrementally more sophisticated today. Yet we never hear about a single effort to investigate suspicious betting action or payoffs using these resources.

If bad guys are really past-posting, milkshaking, hacking, and juicing even one-tenth as much as the average customer has come to believe, all the evidence should be in the betting logs and a savvy parimutuel detective could find it. Either nobody's looking or the wrong people are looking. It's as if there's a security camera trained on a bank vault that has been broken into, but instead of even looking at the videotape, we instead go to people's homes looking for trace elements of explosives on their clothing. There has to be a better way.