Bob Hancock, director of the parimutuel department at Bowie, has been around the racetrack long enough to know there are no surethings on his side of the windows either. "Any profound statement you might try to make about this business, well, the next race shows you don't know what you're talking about," Hancock observes.
There are, however, certain changes that have taken place in the public's betting habits in recent years. For instance, the traditional win, place and show action currently accounts for only 40 per cent of a day's mutuel handle in Maryland, with show beating virtually a no-show.
"The show bet amounted to 4.6 oer cent on the program of Jan. 4, a typical afternoon," Hancock said yesterday, while leafing through his daily wagering statistics. "That 4.6 per cent included the show betting done at the $6 combined sales at six windows."
Maybe, it was suggested, betting on a horse to finish third is about to become extinct.
Possibly, Hancock replied. "It is getting smaller all the time. The place hasn't fallen off quite as badly. The daily double is decreasing, also, but not so much as the exactas and the triple are increasing. The fact is, nobody is satisfied cashing a small bet, like on a show ticket that can return as little as $2.20 for $2."
Indeed, the named of the game today is to try to win big for a small investment, no matter how great the odds may be against cashing such a ticket.
"I believe, here in Maryland, we have seen the ratio of straight betting (win-place-show) compared to what I call the exotic betting (the triple, eight exactes, and a daily double) level off at 40-60," Hancock declared.
"For example, on Jan. 4, when the handle was $940,000 on a $120 per capita, the triple accounted for $10.3 per cent of the total. The exacts were 43.7 per cent, the double 6.8 per cent. Win betting was 25.8 per cent, with place 8.8 per cent and show 4.6 per cent."
A segment of the industry believes this trend ultimately will be self-defeating. The idea of fewer fans winning bigger payoffs, while everybody else goes home broke, long has been considered undesirable by adherence of the "churn effect," which says the best way to generate a large handle is to have the same dollar bet over and over again. Most track owners, accordingly, are delighted to see favorites win several of the early races.
"That is what I was always told, too," Hancock agreed. "They told us the gimmicks like the Pic-Six and the Big Bonanza in West Virginia would tap out more people in a hurry, and once you knock a bettor out he's gone. But I'm not sure this is accurate today.
"I used to be the eighth race, the feature, that attracted the biggest play in Maryland. That was the race with the best horses.Many bettors then left the tracks, to beat the traffic, before the last race. That isn't true anymore. The fans may not stay to see the ninth race (on which the triple is based with probably the day's biggest payoff) , but they stay to bet on it . . . and they make certain to save their money to bet on the triple. They hold something back. They make sure not to lose it all early."
So the triple and the exactas have not, in Hancock's view, had an adverse secondary effect on business.
"If they have tapped out some fans, they've generated new ones," the mutuels manager remarked, then reinforced that opinion by asking, "What would our business be if we didn't offer the triple and the exactas?"
That answer is obvious. The triples and the exactas, once called gimmick wagers, are what have enabled the racetracks to compete with the state lotteries and other such glamorous pools aimed at getting rich quick. As such, parimutuel patterns have changed. Hancock now employs only 60 cashiers to 150 sellers on weekdays. Ten years ago, when there was much more win, place and show action, the numbers were 150 to 80.
More importantly, Hancock believes the triple and the exactas don't drown the bettors much faster than the less exotic pools.
"No one knows for sure how much money is in the track when $940,000 is bet, like there was on Jan. 4," he noted. "My educated guess would be that there is $175,000 to $200,000 in the house."
And, Hancock contends, that $175,000 or $200,000 is generating as much wagering as it did in the old days. It's betting habits. They know what they want, so they make it a point to save some of their money for the triple on the last race even if it means passing up a good thing in the seventh or eighth.
I hope Hancock is right, because there are no betting gimmicks left for this sport to tap. There are no more days left to be added to the racing calendar, either. What the tracks have now is what the fans are going to get for years to come. It will be interesting to see how the tracks' business figures hold up, under the comparatively static circumstances.