Updated on 09/15/2011 2:13PM

Ultra Pick Six still a great bet


The announcement Thursday that the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick Six on Oct. 27 will have a guarantee of $3 million rather than $5 million this year should not discourage anyone from jumping into the pool. This year's edition is as compelling as ever and may well attract over $5 million regardless of a guarantee.

The Ultra Pick Six is the world championship event for pick six players, a daunting final exam to the racing season with spectacular potential rewards. In 1999, only one person got a perfect score and that lone ticket was worth $3.1 million, a record North American payout.

The pool that year was $5.4 million, down from $6.5 million in 1998. Last year, the handle slipped to $5.1 million, but that number may be misleading. According to Cup officials, handle was trending ahead of 1999 at every stage of the betting until the final hour. Then the first two Cup races, not part of the sequence, were run. The improbable victories of Spain ($113.80) and Caressing ($96) severely dented bankrolls and confidence and slowed Pick Six betting to a crawl.

Nonetheless, the combination of the downward handle trend and the business uncertainty stemming from the events of Sept. 11 have made it impossible for the Breeders' Cup to obtain insurance for a $5 million guarantee this year.

The bet is just as appealing with a $3 million guarantee, and there is no reason to share the insurance companies' conservatism about the potential pool. In fact, the way the races are shaking out, with potential imposing favorites such as Officer in the Juvenile and Aptitude in the Classic, suggests the bet is especially playable this year.

People who don't play or understand the pick six mistakenly think that players hate races with heavy favorites. In fact, no one has a big enough bankroll to deal with six chaotic events, and a reliable single or two allows bigger players to invest with more confidence while also opening the bet up to smaller players who can single two favorites and play the Ultra Pick Six as a pick four.

A handle of over $5 million is a distinct possibility and it would have a nice kicker: It would leave a few insurance executives feeling very silly for passing up some free money.

A concept that needs rethinking

The merger of the Breeders' Cup with the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations this year has ensured the NTRA's financial survival and may well lead to some efficiencies though consolidation and streamlining. However, it has now yielded an idea for a new series of races that may be linked to the Breeders' Cup beginning next year. They shouldn't be.

The Great State Day series of races is a dubious concept on its own. The idea is that there would be six $250,000 Breeders' Cup-like races - a Classic, a Turf, a Distaff, a Sprint, and two Juveniles - that would offer one berth per race to a different statebred. So the Great State Juvenile would pit an Iowa-bred 2-year-old against an Oklahoma-bred 2-year-old against a New York-bred 2-year-old and so on. The races would be run a day before the Breeders' Cup at the same track hosting the World Thoroughbred Championships.

These Great State contestants would not be actual championship contenders. If the best Iowa-bred 2-year-old was good enough to run in the Breeders' Cup, his Great State slot would be taken by the second-best Iowa-bred 2-year-old. So it is unlikely that the best Kentucky-bred anything would end up in the Great State races. And why exactly do we need a $250,000 race for the seventh-best Kentucky-bred 2-year-old?

It is difficult to imagine a worse time or place than the day before Breeders' Cup at the Cup's host track. Put aside whether a quota-driven exercise in rewarding mediocrity should be linked to the day that determines true champions. As a practical matter, whatever slim attention the Great State races might otherwise get will completely disappear due to their proximity to the main event. Also, at a time when NTRA/Breeders' Cup is trying to clarify the inherently complex Breeders' Cup races to the general public, devoting any attention or resources to yet another multi-race series with arcane eligibility requirements sounds like a big mistake.

It is difficult to see what the point of these races is, other than a payoff to the state breeding organizations that pay NTRA dues. If they must be paid, wouldn't it be a better use of $1.5 million to enhance rather than detract from the increasingly popular individual statebred days such as Cal Cup, Kentucky Cup, Maryland Million, and New York Showcase?

If the new series proceeds, at least it should be uncoupled from the Cup and its venue. Why not award it on a rotating basis to tracks that are never going to host a Breeders' Cup? Run at a smaller track a week before or after the Cup, at least the races could be the biggest local event of the year rather than an inappropriate and completely ignored add-on to the Breeders' Cup.