Updated on 09/16/2011 8:07AM

When calling no-contest is a no-brainer

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Weather can be unpredictable here, and on a recent afternoon, blue skies were rapidly replaced by dark clouds rolling in from the south.

Heavy rain started falling before the fourth race at Saratoga Race Course, and the brief storm soaked the turf course. As a result, the eighth race, the featured Yaddo Handicap, was transferred from the grass to the main track.

Owners and trainers of pure turf runners could opt out of the race by scratching their horses, but many bettors were stuck. They had wagered $123,853 in the pick six, which began on the third race and ended with the Yaddo, and all had done so with the presumption that the race would be on the grass.

Many of them surely preferred the favorites, Eventail and Shopping for Love, both proven grass specialists. When the Yaddo was switched to the dirt, Eventail was scratched. Under pick six rules, bettors get the post-time favorite in place in the scratched horse, and the Yaddo favorite was Shopping for Love - who hadn't won on dirt in 27 months. After a 13-1 shot won the Yaddo, nobody hit the pick six. People who narrowly missed it were justifiably upset that they had lost because the conditions of the race were changed after they bet.

Two days after those events of Aug. 16, horseplayers playing the pick four at Monmouth Park had no reason to fear a similar scenario. The wager encompassed races five through eight, and both the sixth and eighth races were on the turf, but the skies were clear and no rain was in the forecast. However, after $44,019 had been bet on the pick four and the first leg had been run, Monmouth stunned bettors by transferring both races from the turf to the dirt; jockeys complained that there was a dangerous soft spot at the top of the stretch. Almost every pick four bettor had played Lismore Knight, the odds-on favorite in the sixth race, who had won his only previous start on the grass in a runaway. But running on dirt wasn't his game; when he finished out of the money, nobody had a perfect pick four ticket.

Because so many horses like turf and hate dirt, and vice versa, races shifted suddenly from turf to dirt often produce unforeseeable results. Problems with these late changes have increased as more tracks offer pick threes and pick fours in addition to the pick six - wagers in which the bettor can be locked into a selection well in advance of the race.

The proper way to deal with such a situation ought to be obvious: Races transferred from grass to dirt after wagering has closed should be treated as "no contest." Saratoga's pick six becomes a pick five. Monmouth's pick four, with two races taken off the turf, becomes a pick two.

Many racing officials are now aware that such a rule ought to be adopted, and one was determined to make it happen. The late Basil Plasteras of the New Jersey Racing Commission was attempting to draft a model rule to be adopted by the Association of Racing Comissioners International. Shortly before his death in early August, he phoned me to discuss a tricky issue associated with the "no-contest" solution. What happens in the case of a pick six carryover?

Suppose there had been a $200,000 jackpot at Saratoga on the day the rains came. A bettor picks the first five winners - but the last race is "no contest." Should that bettor collect the $200,000 carryover, or his share of it?

No, he shouldn't. A bettor doesn't deserve to win the carryover by picking five winners (or less). Such a policy would be consistent with New York's existing rules that say a jackpot isn't paid in the event that some of the races are canceled. But bettors who pick five when one race is declared "no contest" would still be well compensated.

Normally, if nobody picks six, 50 percent of the pool is paid out to tickets with five winners, and the other 50 percent goes into the jackpot. In the case of a "no contest" scenario, however, the day's entire pool should be paid out. When there is a carryover, the day's wagering pool usually will be large, so a bettor who does pick five can win a substantial payout anyway. He won't be completely happy, of course, but all horseplayers will know in advance that this is the rule and it exists to protect the public interest.

Plasteras's death postponed the ARCI's action on this matter, but the national group is going to consider a model rule in a conference call Tuesday. Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the New Jersey commission, said that the present version of the rule does not call for paying out 100 percent of the day's pool. This would be patently unfair: If bettors wager $200,000 on a pick six, why should they be penalized and get only $100,000 back if a race is taken off the turf? That's as unfair as the present system.

But if the commissioners tweak the rule, and states adopt their proposal, they will do a great service to the betting public. Horseplayers can't be protected from most of the bad luck that plagues them, but they can and should be protected when races are taken off the turf.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post