11/15/2007 12:00AM

Turf favorites torpedo many a pick-six play

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - No need to hit the panic button yet. Gee whiz, the Hollywood Park fall meet began only a week and a half ago.

But weird things are happening this fall in Southern California. It started during the six-week Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and has continued straight into Hollywood.

Have you noticed? It seems every time you turn around, another pick-six carryover is up for grabs. The pick six carried over 10 times during the 31-day Oak Tree meet, and three times already in the first six days at Hollywood.

Pick-six carryovers are good for business. When the Wednesday, Nov. 14, card at Hollywood featured a $143,528 pick-six carryover, the handle was 4.6 percent higher than on opening day one week earlier, when a more attractive Wednesday card featured high-class racing, large fields, and a good turf stakes.

But opening day was missing the most important business ingredient of Southern California racing - a pick-six carryover.

In terms of handle, good carryovers have become more important than good racing. In the past two months at Santa Anita and Hollywood, the pick six has carried over 13 times in just 37 days of racing, and Oak Tree benefited from a 9 percent jump in handle over its previous meet.

Higher field size during the Oak Tree meet contributed to the carryover trend. There were 8.9 starters per race this fall, compared to 8.2 starters per race during the 2006 meet.

However, field size is not the sole reason for the increased number of carryovers. Perhaps more important is the declining win rate of favorites. This fall in Southern California, the chalk has been taking it on the chin.

During the Oak Tree meet, favorites won only 28 percent of the time (78 for 274).

Six days into Hollywood, favorites have won just 24 percent (12 for 50).

When favorites lose, the pick six is tough. Stringing together a six-race series of winners is hard enough, but when key horses lose, the bet becomes unwieldy. When singles lose, the bet is simply cost-prohibitive for most bettors.

Take, for example, last Saturday at Hollywood. Neither of the two shortest prices in the sequence won (one scratched), and the pick six paid $210,750 even though five of the winners were one of the first two favorites. The longshot winner paid $24.60 in a six-horse field.

Two things made the pick six difficult. Silver Stetson Man was 1-2 and a likely single in race 5, but he lost. Zetterberg was even-money and a popular single in race 6, but he scratched at the gate. Pick-six bettors who did not use alternate selections on their tickets (most bettors do not use them) got stuck with favorite Signature Move, who ran third.

Silver Stetson Man's defeat follows the trend. Favorites are increasingly difficult to trust. When they lose, the pick six is difficult, and carryovers are more frequent.

When there is a carryover, business is good. It puts racetracks in an awkward position.

Once upon a time, racetracks did not have a vested interest in the outcome of a race. It did not matter if a race was won by a favorite, or a longshot. The track merely "held" the money; the winning bettors were paid after the race, and most everyone was happy.

Actually, handle might have increased as more favorites won. More bettors cashed tickets, money was more widely distributed to bettors, and the "churn" (handle) increased. Good business.

But in today's competitive climate, business is better when favorites lose. When favorites lose, the pick six becomes tougher to hit. Carryovers are generated. Handle increases. Nowadays, racetracks do have a vested interest in the outcome of a race. It helps the track when favorites lose.

Favorites have done a lot of losing lately, though not on the surface one might expect. The synthetic-surface circuit is now complete - Cushion Track at Hollywood and Santa Anita; Polytrack at Del Mar. Fairplex Park still runs on dirt, but for only 16 days in fall.

The changing main-track surfaces would be a rational explanation for an increase in form reversals. But it has not happened on synthetic.

Favorites won 32 percent (89 of 280) on Polytrack at Del Mar.

Favorites won 30 percent (56 of 189) on Cushion Track during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita.

Favorites have won 34 percent (226 of 664) the past year on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park.

So where are the upsets coming from? This fall, they have occurred on grass.

Turf-race favorites won at only a 26 percent clip (22 for 85) during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and they are off to an equally dismal start at Hollywood, where they won just 3 of 14 races over the first six days.

Long range, Southern California favorites on grass are less reliable than on the main track. Based on win percentage, main-track favorites outperformed turf favorites in four of the last five major meets. From the 2006 Hollywood fall meet through Wednesday, main-track favorites won 33.9 percent (646 for 1,904); turf favorites won 30.7 percent (197 for 641).

Recent results in Southern California suggest bettors are putting too little faith in favorites on synthetic surfaces, and too much faith in favorites on grass.

Or it might be nothing more than statistical mumbo-jumbo.

It is worth considering the next time a turf favorite looks good at Hollywood Park. It might be a concern next weekend in the Autumn Turf Festival, and even on Saturday for bettors considering a potential singleton.

That is race-7 starter Storm Military, a Group 1-winning import from South America who might be a "good thing" except for one thing - the classified allowance is on the grass.