A storm is brewing in the racing game, and it is called the pick six. With the proliferation of casino gambling and lotteries at an all-time high, racing's historically boring $6.20 win payoffs are under siege. The American public thirsts for big-time, life-changing scores, while eking out a profit ranks somewhere on the boredom meter between an Al Gore speech and a Perry Cuomo vinyl album.
Pick six mania sweeps the racing nation at the very mention of the word "carryover," which to those new to the game is the term used when the pick six wagering pool was not solved on the previous racing day and a portion of that leftover cash is carried over into the next day's pick six pool. Sharpies call it "dead money" in that it is money left in the pool that can't beat you today, but is there for the taking.
Carryovers generate excitement and are instantly marketable. They are a dream come true for racetrack executives, who need not spend thousands of dollars on getting T-shirts printed or bobblehead dolls carved and calibrated. Simply hang the $100,000 or $200,000 or even $500,000-plus carryover sign on the front door and watch customers line up. What's more, it's not even the track's money -- it is yours and mine.
It would seem that all is good in the world of the pick six.
For today at least.
Today's craze, however, is tomorrow's bust. The simple reason why the pick six generates huge payoffs, sometimes in excess of $1 million for a lucky ticketholder, is that there are fewer people slicing the winning pie in the pick six than other racetrack wagers. When the horses cross the wire, there may be 10,000 of us on any given race waving a successful win ticket in the air and heading to collect our $8.60. But at the end of the pick six, those screaming in ecstasy literally number in the handfuls, and sometimes can be counted on single fingers.
The danger in the pick six is that it inherently is almost impossible to hit. Consider that with a mere six horses entered in each race, there are 46,655 ways to get beat and only one combination that will win. With 10 horses in each race, that number explodes to exactly 999,999 ways to lose and, yet, still, only one combination in which to succeed.
Even if you're a fantastic handicapper, eliminating a 10-horse field down to the three-best contenders in each race would cost $1,458 to play a 3x3x3x3x3x3 ticket. And, still, there are 728 live combinations on the table, but only one that could win. Granted, while there are more sophisticated ways to craft pick-six tickets (and volumes of books and articles written on the subject), the simplistic mathematical mentions here are not to confuse that point, but rather just shed light on the mountainous chore at hand.
Focusing the horse racing wagering experience on the pick six is a sure-fire way to bust 99.9 percent of the fan base. I consider myself one of the better handicappers in the country, and you can chalk that up to equal parts ego and experience, I guess. But even that doesn't fool me enough to ever think I'll hit the pick six. In fact, I don't play it. Among what now must be hundreds of thousands of lifetime wagers, I may have bet into a pick six pool five times. Most of those were while working with the ESPN television crew as staff members put together a syndicate ticket where we all bought in for an affordable share and hoped. We hit four out of six once, I recall. That's about it.
When the pick six creates a stir on its own, it's hard to argue its excitement and short-term benefit. I've personally seen traffic explode at the Web site I manage, HorsePlayerdaily.com, and sales for our handicapping products take a decided rise on "carryover" days. But there's also a real cautionary tale involved in chasing rainbows. So many more people will leave the track with zero dollars remaining of their $200 initial bankrolls than, say, $140 or $55 remaining even after a losing day. That makes it very difficult to come back tomorrow when a customer's expendable income is drained in one day vs. two or three in a raceweek.
More importantly, an ethical issue also arises as the pick six gains importance on the horse racing landscape. It used to be that the racetrack did not care who won a race. No matter who won, the track skimmed their 15 to 25 percent takeout off the top, and everyone went on their merry ways. Whether the horse paid $8 or $24 to win, the track still got its same share, and so did the divided public.
But the pick six, and hopes for a carryover, now give the racetrack an absolute vested interest in the outcome of the races. The more longshots who win, the less likely the pick six is to be hit and the more interest there will be in tomorrow's racing menu. This is not to imply whatsoever that the "fix" is in, whereas tracks set races up for particular horses. I think any conspiracy theorist who lobbies those points is far, far off base. But what it does imply, in fact more than imply, but rather insist, is that tracks want to make the races as difficult to hit as possible.
Racing secretaries and mutuels managers are on the record publicly in California stating that exact point -- that it's in their best interests, and, in fact, their "job" to make the pick six as difficult as possible and create carryovers. What they do, then, is juggle the race order to ensure that races with more likely winners (heavy favorites) and smallish field sizes are excluded from the day's six races that make up the pick-six sequence. They'll also price these exotic wagers at $2 minimums, trying to keep players from being able to buy too many combinations in affordable amounts, thus reducing the likelihood of the pick six being solved.
Any time the house cares who wins, it's a bad thing. Perception is reality, and racing needs no more perception problems. Shuffling the race order does nothing to discredit the fair-play realities of the racetrack, but it does show interest in influencing the winning and losing process.
I'm not against the excitement of the pick six, and its short-term financial windfalls to the racetracks and many of us in the racing game. But I certainly can't champion the cause of anything that's designed to bust horseplayers faster and makes it more difficult to visit the track two or three times as often as possible. I'd prefer to see the pick six offered once a week with a guaranteed pool. If it carries over, roll the money into next week's jackpot. At the surface, the wager has fascinating merit, is compelling and has secured a real place in the horseplayer's mindset.
It's a tough balance. Obviously, this "who wants to be a millionaire" society screams for the jackpot adrenaline rush. And, who am I, or the racetrack officials, to say we know "what's best" for you? The bottom line is that it's the consumer's choice to make. Just be smart, realistic and judicious. As for me, I'll continue to be more than happy to cash a paltry 500-to-1 payback on a trifecta, thank you.
Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its Web site, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at firstname.lastname@example.org.