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Horse Racing at Saratoga

Two Professional Bettors Take Their Handicapping Expertise and Wallets to Saratoga
Brad Thomas
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 2)

Ten years ago, "overlays" similar to Glorious Purple at 11 to 1 came along in New York five or six times a month. With the decline of horse quality and quantity, however, such opportunities may occur only once every two weeks. Marc and I were hopeful that the elite Saratoga meeting might prove an exception to the Aqueduct and Belmont trend, but we were not surprised when it did not. To build our betting volume to a sustaining level, we planned to selectively play a complex wager called the Pick 6.

The Pick 6 requires a bettor to choose correctly the first-place winners for races three through eight. Serious bettors do not attempt to hit the Pick 6 by playing only one horse a race for a single $2 wager. Instead the general strategy is to invest relatively large sums and use a number of contestants in most events. If one plays three horses in three races, four horses in two and two horses in one, the total cost is $1,728. Many victorious favorites can mean a payoff less than the "winning" bettor's investment, but a few long shots mean a six-figure prize.

Every dollar wagered to win on a New York Racing Association race is taxed at 17 percent (called takeout) before it is distributed to winning bettors. In addition, successful bets at most OTBs are surcharged at either 5 or 6 percent. The takeout on Pick 6 wagers is an astronomical 25 percent. Furthermore, high-paying Pick 6 scores are also subject to a 28 percent federal withholding tax. The feds regard a winning Pick 6 combination as a single $2 bet and do not take into account the reality that a bettor's total investment in the wager might be much greater. Therefore, a player who bets $1,728 to win a $6,000 Pick 6, pays withholding tax on a "profit" of $5,998 when the true gain is actually only $4,272. These odious state and federal taxes are counterproductive to the general public and highly destructive to the racing industry because they remove money from circulation that would otherwise be rechurned through the betting windows to the benefit of everyone--including government.

Marc and I thought that a carryover of more than $100,000 (the Pick 6 was not hit the previous day) and the large, free-spending crowd on hand for the important Travers Stakes would combine to create a Pick 6 payoff large enough to offset the effects of high taxation. With a bankroll strengthened by some silent partners, we were confident that we could attack the wager aggressively.

In the first leg of the Pick 6, we bet that two experienced fillies would be able to dominate their more lightly raced rivals at seven furlongs (a significant distance for two year olds to run in August). Most players would do the opposite and use many horses in what was, on the surface, a risky event. In the final leg, we "singled," or used alone, a long shot named Sentimental Moi. We gambled that the heavy favorite would be compromised by rain-softened turf and that our choice would benefit from it.

Rarely do six consecutive races go exactly the way even the best or hottest handicappers expect. Using only three picks in two events gave us the leverage to play virtually all the entrants in the three races we believed were most wide open. We made reasoned guesses about where "chaos," or unexpected long shots, would win over logic and constructed a ticket that, if successful, could give us a huge payoff. In the Travers, we used the favorites, Holy Bull and Tabasco Cat, but also threw in a lesser animal named Concern, who we felt had a chance to upset if the other two hooked up prematurely and became vulnerable to a stretch runner.

After the first four legs of the bet, although our ticket was still "alive," Marc and I were losing our gamble. All favorites or near favorites had won in horribly logical fashion. We needed big prices in the final two events to justify the size of our investment. The failure of "chaos" to occur in seemingly competitive contests is all too typical of New York racing and a direct result of a horse population lacking depth and ability.

The Travers almost bailed us out. Concern charged alongside Holy Bull in the stretch and, for a fleeting moment, actually looked as if he would blow by and win. However, the favorite exerted his will like a bloodied heavyweight champion dominating the final round on sheer class against a game but spent challenger. Holy Bull won by a neck, but the margin of victory would have been a half mile if they had gone around again.

The last leg of the Pick 6 was almost anticlimactic. Even if Sentimental Moi were to triumph, our net profit would have been less than if we had waited and put our entire Pick 6 investment on him to win at almost 9 to 1. He ran decently but finished fourth.

Marc and I were not terribly bothered that Sentimental Moi had lost. We knew that, in the long run, good handicapping would yield enough winning "singles" to allow plenty of Pick 6 victories. What truly disturbed us, though, was the larger picture. The New York horse ranks were so thin, even at Saratoga, that the racing was not contentious enough to provide consistently fair value in the Pick 6--much less in individual contests.

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