Pick-4-ing Your Spots When Wagering

September 11, 2014

Saratoga Jon's Dad Window
The mutual window where Jonathan’s Dad worked for many years. Jon practically grew up hanging around that window as a young boy and teenager.

I have said it many times before, from a wagering perspective the game has changed, and to beat it you have to change and adjust as well. What worked then doesn’t necessarily work now, and if you lock into habits, it will hurt you. Flexibility and playing the hand you’re dealt to some extent are required. What makes it even tougher is that every race card you decide to tackle might not be best suited for the same approach.

It seems almost every racetrack, public handicapper, racing publication and certainly networks like HRTV and TVG promote multi-race wagers with an emphasis on Pick-4 wagers. Secondary is the Pick-6, especially when a carryover is involved. These have long been two of my personal favorite wagers and the result of some of my biggest successes at the windows. Naturally that leaves me inclined to continue to play them without the encouragement of anyone.  But is that where I have the best chance of winning? Moreover, is that what is going to offer the best return on investment for my wagering dollar? This is something that has to be looked at on a day by day, race by race basis. To simply go after those wagers, while ignoring certain others, might be doing you an injustice.

You almost never hear any of those same people or publications encouraging you to go after a triple, superfecta, or even an exacta. I think that can be a mistake nowadays. I remember a time when the Pick-4 at NYRA tracks almost always paid considerably more than the parlay. Sometimes it was two to three times the parlay and, at times, even more was the norm and not the exception. Today, exceeding the parlay is no guarantee. It happens, sure, but not with the regularity and certainty it used to and not by the same amounts. Coming in right around the parlay or just slightly over it seems way more frequent than in the past. The daily Pick-6 pools have been down for years in New York. They have gone backwards along with the frequency of multi-day carryovers. The daily NYRA Pick-6 pools on a day without a carryover used to hover around $100,000. Now it’s about half of that. Hitting one hasn’t gotten any easier, but the reward has been lessened.

Pick-4: Smaller Returns

The smaller returns on Pick-4 wagers have logical reasons, even on days when they have large guaranteed pools and on all-stakes cards, which attract extra attention and money. First off, you will probably have at the least one race with a smaller field. Small fields are the biggest price killers. You have more sharks in the water with more information readily available. The 50-cent minimum allows more spreading and you would be surprised at the number of players that invest more than they can reasonably hope to win just to cash a ticket. The amount of spreading does not have the effect we hope, as in more money thus higher payout. It should but it doesn’t.

The Pick-6 is a different animal but also suffering. With the exception of California, where Pick-6 pools remain strong, the pools are down. Multi-day carryovers are rare because of all the syndicates and sharks and all the excellent information available. The $2 minimum keeps a lot of smaller and recreational players away, or at least at a disadvantage, but you still have races with small fields in the sequence which makes winning easier. The smaller Pick-6 pools have had a significant impact on the average payoffs and that has to be considered if you are playing year round for a living.

To beat the game you have to be an excellent handicapper, a good bettor, and you have to be a master at picking your spots. There is nothing wrong with passing and living to fight another day. I have spent many days at the track taking notes and handicapping but not making a bet. It is part of the discipline it takes to survive and ultimately win.

The superfecta has become a very lucrative bet that is not hurt by the 10-cent minimum the same way the Pick-4 is hurt by the 50-cent minimum. The pools are usually healthy and you can elect to go after one in a race with a large field. Those are two considerable edges right there. It’s a single race wager so you just have to be right once, as opposed to four or six times, and you can get the same value. Sometimes I have found it pays to let the smart money have all the fun and glory in the Pick-4 that everyone is talking about and quietly go after a nice superfecta. The payouts on Breeders’ Cup and Derby days can be phenomenal. They often far exceed the Pick-4 wagers and all that smart money.

I like to structure the superfecta like an exacta. You can’t handicap a race as to who will run third or fourth. If  you think you can, well okay but in reality you can’t. I play the superfecta this way: I take the horse I like on top, and then I use three horses in the second slot, and then use all and all in the last two slots. This is a great bet. It’s affordable to most players because of the 10-cent minimum and it will cost a lot less than a lot of Pick-4′s. Having all in the last two slots leaves you open to some major payouts, especially if your key horse is not the favorite. That 10-cent minimum also allows you to hit the repeat button a few times, as well, on occasion.

I like to play triples the same as superfectas but without that last all. They are more affordable even though the minimum is usually one dollar or 50-cents. I look at the triple as the poor man’s superfecta. I liked Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another in their respective Kentucky Derbies and was knocked out of both Pick-4′s. I went after both triples and hit them but the payouts were paltry next to the superfectas. I felt robbed with both triples but that is more a rarity than with the Pick-4 wagers. Had I not wasted so much smart money in the Pick-4′s I may have approached those two derbies differently.

The exacta is as solid a bet as you will find. I love to play them and do so often. If you’re a good handicapper you can forego the win bet and get a lot more value with your horse on top of two or three others. I never box and almost never reverse an exacta. I want to make it count when I am right.

I’m not saying to avoid Pick-4′s or even Pick-6′s. I love them both and they can be very rewarding. I just think you need to approach each card differently and look for your best shot with it.

With Saratoga and Del Mar over it brings us one of the most unheralded but worthy boutique and premier meets in the country. If you are not familiar with Kentucky Downs you should be, especially if you love turf racing. With a European-style course over rolling hills and a stretch that never ends, the meet attracts top outfits and horses for the five days a year that they run. They give away a million dollars a day in purses and have huge fields in just about every race. The pools are respectable enough and the racing is first class. It’s a beautiful facility that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets.

Parx has its big day next Saturday, highlighted by The Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion Stakes. Both are fine races and this year there’s a bonus with the return of California Chrome. All eyes will be on him, as we learn whether he has come back as good as he left. We’ll see but I have my reservations and they are well chronicled.

High 5

Kentucky Downs. These guys get it and do it right.

Low 5

Ray Rice.

Horse to Watch

Tumminia. A two-year-old Big Brown filly trained by Patty Reynolds, who ran well going long on turf in a maiden special at Belmont. She was a bit wide and should improve. Patty was the original trainer of Big Brown and it’s nice to see him with a filly by him who can run a little.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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@Tracking_Trips amazing amazing amazing

Jimmy Williams @matt918476 View testimonials