Louisiana Downs debacle illustrates the absurdity of ‘jackpot’ wagers

Andrew Beyer
Columnist July 22, 2013

When the horses crossed the finish line in the final race at Louisiana Downs on Saturday, the track announcer exclaimed, “Tsavo is a two-length winner, taking down the Super Pick Five!”

The Super Pick Five is one of the new breed of “jackpot” bets; if a player hits five winners and holds the lone ticket on the winning combination, he collects a big payoff. As the size of the Louisiana Downs jackpot grew into six figures, it attracted national attention, and nobody was more galvanized by Saturday’s events than two men 1,100 miles from the track, in Charles Town, W.Va.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

They had shared a wager on the Super Pick Five and watched their picks win the first four races. Then they stared with excitement at the probable payoffs on track’s television feed, which showed that Tsavo, one of their two horses in the finale, would produce a $488,000 payoff. It would be the score of a lifetime for both men.

Instead, the race became something very different for Billy Kennedy and Jimmy Appell.

Kennedy is a jockey agent, representing Travis Dunkelberger and Jose Montano, the leading rider at the current Charles Town meeting. Appell, 65, is a lifelong fan who owns a few thoroughbreds. They frequently collaborate on wagers, and when they became aware of the six-figure jackpot at Louisiana Downs, they discussed the Saturday card and formulated a $240 play. Kennedy took two-thirds of the investment and made the wager through his TwinSpires.com betting account.

Appell watched from the track and Kennedy from home as the drama unfolded. They won the first four races with horses paying $15.80 and $51.20, $7.40 and $8.80, and had two selections in the final leg. One of them would yield an $11,983 consolation payoff because another live ticket used the same horse. But Tsavo had lost his only two starts by 17 and 21 lengths and was 6 to 1 in the morning line, and he was paying the whole pool. Appell liked him because he thought the colt would improve by moving from dirt to grass.

Other handicappers evidently saw virtues in Tsavo, too. Money poured onto him and by post time he was the 8-to-5 favorite. No bettor could ask more than to be alive for $488,000 with a hot favorite.

But after Tsavo crossed the finish line, the winners’ joy lasted just a few minutes. When the race was official and the payoffs were posted, Kennedy and Appell stared with disbelief at their respective television screens and saw that the Super Pick Five had paid $11,983. Kennedy went to his Twin Spires account and confirmed that this was the amount of his win — not $488,000.

Kennedy phoned Louisiana Downs and was told that another ticket had been sold on the combination at Arlington Park, but he couldn’t get a clear explanation.

“Everybody was blowing me off and telling me to grin and bear it,” he said.

Travis Stone, who doubles as Louisiana Downs’ mutuels director and track announcer, investigated the payoff and found the explanation later that night.

Like most similar exotic wagers, the rules governing the Super Pick Five specify that, in the event of a late scratch, a player’s selection is transferred to the post-time favorite. There had been no late scratches in the ninth race, but two horses had been withdrawn at normal scratch time, about 11 a.m., hours before the Louisiana Downs card had begun. Stone learned that the other winning ticket on the Pick Five had been bought at Chicago’s Arlington Park at 8:21 a.m., and the lone selection in the final leg was a 30-to-1 shot who wound up being scratched. This horse was replaced by the post-time favorite, Tsavo.

The data fed from tote companies to racetracks cannot reflect this information, because their computers don’t know who the post-time favorite will be. Stone said, “If we’d known [all of the circumstances], we wouldn’t have shown the probable payoffs.”

Indeed, that’s the practice at most tracks. Stone was sympathetic about the anguish that the incorrect information had caused. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a horseplayer having a tougher beat,” he said.

Sympathy didn’t mollify Kennedy and Appell. “I don’t believe that anybody would have bought a ticket at 8 in the morning and singled [i.e. stood alone with] the 5 horse,” Appell said. “This is so typical of the industry. It’s not policed. I’ve been playing the horses since grade school, but I think I’m done. This is no fun.”

Appell is correct that something is wrong with this scenario — and it is the very existence of jackpot wagers that pay out the whole pool only to one winning ticket. They have proliferated because of the success of Gulfstream Park’s jackpot Pick Six, but nobody in the industry seems to care that they are a rip-off of the betting public and that the rules governing them — particularly those involving scratches — have not been well thought-out.

At Louisiana Downs, the track takes 25 percent off the top of each day’s Super Pick Five pool, and 50 percent of the remainder goes into the jackpot. This adds up to a 62.5 percent takeout. Except for the one person who eventually wins the jackpot, every other bettor is playing for 37.5 percent of the pool, an abominable gambling proposition. By contrast, handicappers playing the conventional Pick Five at Del Mar can bet into a pool of more than $500,000 while paying a 14 percent takeout.

It is not only these percentages that make jackpot wagers unattractive; the randomness of the one-winner-take-all format makes them a bad bet, too. It’s very possible that the bettor at Arlington Park was playing his telephone number or a lucky number — his choice in the last race is otherwise inexplicable — that, for Kennedy and Appell, transformed a great handicapping triumph into sheer torment.

For prevous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/
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