By Andrew Beyer
washington post staff writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; D02
While the eyes of the racing world were on Louisville, horseplayers from coast to coast were paying attention to Grove City, Ohio, too. On the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby, Beulah Park offered a wager called the Fortune 6 that was so enticing, so irresistible that it generated a pool of more than $1 million.
The little track's remarkable day ought to hold some valuable lessons for the racing industry. Even in a bad economic climate, an attractive betting product will find customers. And in the era of simulcasting, minor league tracks can sometimes compete with the major league circuits. Beulah has always been a scrappy, innovative operation. It became well known among horseplayers when it hired, as its on-air handicappers, the Beulah Twins, two generously endowed blonde sisters who looked as if they might have stepped out the pages of Playboy. Their daily presence on simulcast TVs attracted bettors' attention to Beulah. The track is imaginative, too, in using its facilities to generate revenue in any way it can. One of this summer's highlights: a mud volleyball tournament. "We're trying to do anything creative to stay alive," General Manager Mike Weiss said.
Nothing will create greater interest among bettors than a wager with a big potential payoff -- as the tracks in California and New York demonstrate every time they have a large carryover in the Pick Six. Weiss had observed that a hybrid version of the Pick Six had been phenomenally successful at an otherwise struggling track in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He tweaked the rules and introduced Beulah's version of the wager in 2006.
In a conventional Pick Six, of course, bettors try to select six consecutive winners; if nobody does so, about half of the day's wagering pool goes into a jackpot that grows until bettors do hit a perfect ticket. The Fortune 6 offers a few twists on this familiar format. The betting unit is only 25 cents instead of the customary $2. And the jackpot is paid out only when a single ticket has all six winners. If more than one bettor picks six winners, they share 40 percent of the pool and the rest goes into the jackpot.
The Beulah wager paid a record $364,589 in 2007, but this spring the pot grew even larger, thriving under conditions that are ordinarily anathema to a Pick Six. Beulah's long winter-spring season was drawing to a close, and its horse population was thinned out. The track could rarely muster a full field. Uncompetitive six- and seven-horse races, with short-priced winners, were commonplace. After the Fortune 6 jackpot grew into six figures, simulcast players started taking notice and betting more than $50,000 a day trying to hit it.
But with so many small fields, a six-race sequence never produced a bunch of long-shot winners that would eliminate all but one Fortune 6 ticket. Moreover, with the 25-cent betting unit, players making a serious investment could blanket most of the plausible combinations. Winning the jackpot was virtually impossible. Yet bettors kept betting. (I can attest that, while recognizing the futility of the quest, I, too, was drawn to the Fortune 6 like a moth to a flame.)
The jackpot pool had grown to $445,000 before Beulah's race meeting was scheduled to close Saturday, so on that day the track had to pay out the whole pool regardless of how many perfect tickets existed. Because of the mandatory pool, bettors wagered with gusto on a lineup of decent-quality races (by Beulah standards), putting more than $700,000 into the Fortune 6 on Saturday. The results were all logical, with favorites taking three of the races, so nobody won a fortune. The payoff was $3,750 for a 25-cent ticket.
The big winner was Beulah. Not only did the Fortune 6 generate robust betting during the weeks when the jackpot was growing, but players were betting much more on conventional wagers. If a handicapper had studied six races in depth, he was apt to hold some opinions that prompted him to play exactas and trifectas, too. The impact on Beulah's business was noticeable, sometimes boosting its total daily handle by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every racetrack should be trying to create exotic bets that have a similar impact. The possibilities are endless. Here's one:
Laurel Park and Colonial Downs regularly run wide-open, 14-horse fields on their turf courses. Why not offer a special High Five (a bet that requires picking the first five finishers in order) on such a race once a day? The tracks could jump-start betting by guaranteeing a minimum $25,000 pool; if nobody held a perfect ticket, the entire pool would go into a jackpot for the next day. It would be easy to generate six-figure jackpots that would stir the juices of the betting public.
Beulah's experience should be instructive. A track can sometimes succeed without a high-quality racing product. It can succeed without a large fan base. All it needs is a little imagination.