The psychology of jackpot wagering

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TwinSpires Staff

June 30th, 2016

by Dick Powell

The Pick 6, and its various iterations, has been in the news a lot lately. Some good; some bad. Here are some of my impressions.

First, I hate when race offices try to socially engineer the bet. They stack the sequence of six races with the most inscrutable races on the card so that there will be more carryovers which will lead to more interest and more betting.

One way this is done is to take the stakes race of the day, usually with four or five betting interests, and put it earlier in the card to keep it out of the almighty Pick 6. So a racing tradition where the stakes race that day is run later in the card before the biggest audience, is scheduled early in the day to accommodate a bet that, at least in New York, is usually about 1% of the total handle for that day unless there is a big carryover.

Sidebar: It used to be real easy to figure out what percentage of total wagering the Pick 6 but NYRA stopped providing total betting handle at the end of the day. Now, all we get is the Pick 6 betting pool and you would have to manually add all the betting pools from all the races to determine the daily total handle.

While tracks try to make the Pick 6 harder to get more carryovers, they ignore the results of the early Pick 5. At NYRA, the Pick 5 has a 15% takeout and it often has some of the worst races on the card. In the battle between quality and quantity, rarely does a race that has both show up in the Pick 5 unless it is also the start of the Pick 6.

The Pick 5 has low quality races and/or low quantity races, i. e., races with small fields and yet it consistently has higher wagering than the Pick 6 at NYRA. And at NYRA, when there is no carryover, the takeout on both the Pick 5 and Pick 6 is the same 15%. If there is a carryover on the Pick 6, it goes up to 24%.

Last Saturday, when there was no carryover for the Pick 6, the Pick 5 handled $447,297 and the Pick 6 handled $80,340. The Pick 5 (races one through five) had field sizes of 7, 7, 7, 6 and 9 for an average field size of 7.2 starters per race. The Pick 6 (races five through 10) had field sizes of 9, 10, 9, 7, 6 and 11 for average field size of 8.33.

So, with smaller fields, the Pick 5 did over five times the betting of the Pick 6 and this example is not an aberration. But, it is the Pick 6 that race offices decide to put the races that have the biggest field sizes despite a decided lack of results. You would think that the bigger fields of the Pick 6 would generate higher wagering but it looks like the opposite is true.

Making a multi-race sequence harder than it should just doesn’t work. What would be wrong with a sequence of races that were a mix of logical and illogical?

We have a trend in American betting that is not healthy and there is no end in sight. When racing prospered and was one of the big three sports along with baseball and boxing, there was a daily double and win/place/show wagering. Bettors were willing to risk money to make money.

Now, we have a betting culture that is focused on betting a little to make a lot. High takeout, big payoff wagers are the ones that are being pushed as racing lusts after the “lottery” player to try to get them to play our game.

So when someone hits a life-changing score, it certainly changes their life. But nobody else. The money is not necessarily churned back into the game and too much money gets tied up waiting for someone to win it.

When you compare America to other countries around the world, we are on the low-end of per capita betting. Countries way smaller than ours bet as much as we do with just a fraction of the population. Most of these countries have betting that is centered on a single race. Odds are what they are and the big payoffs can come from single-race exotic wagers. There are few multi-race bets.

The legal bookmakers in countries are a perfect example of our differences. There, they take a bath when favorites win. You will hear them at the end of a day’s racing at Royal Ascot talk about what kind of day they had and it is always dependent upon how many favorites won that day since that is what the public bets on.

When the favorites win, the bookies lose. When the favorites lose, the bookies win. When Frankie Dettori wins seven of seven races at Ascot, the bookies go out of business. That is their worst-case scenario.

So, how do horse bettors outside of America make money? Well, and I hope you are sitting down for this – they bet a lot to make a lot. One reason that I predicted exchange wagering would have a rough go of it in America is that we no longer bet to win any more and most of exchange wagering is based on win betting.

When I was a kid growing up in New York City on Staten Island, there was no lottery. But we didn’t need it since the numbers racket not only provided a similar bet but gave bettors credit to bet with. The lottery came along and I could never understand why they didn’t cap winnings while having more winners.

In other words, why have a few people make a $100 million each and not have a couple of hundred people make a $1 million each?

The same with racing. We have made the multi-race sequence bets super hard in order to artificially increase the chances of carryovers that will attract more wagering. But, it is hard to convince me that it is working. I understand the psychology of jackpot wagering but when only a few people benefit, how long can the others stay in the game?