The Pick Six has been generating excitement at California tracks for a decade, but there has never been a Pick Six quite like the one at Bay Meadows last week.
The track near San Francisco offers relatively minor-league racing compared with those in Southern California; a typical weekday program will include cheap maiden-claiming races that are tough to handicap under the best of circumstances. After a week of rain had left the racing strip very muddy, the horses' form became ever harder to fathom.
Over a five-day period, a stunning succession of long shots dominated the Pick Six races, and the carryover jackpot swelled to $654,533. Syndicates that regularly play the Pick Six at Hollywood Park were sending emissaries to Bay Meadows with huge bankrolls. Investments of $10,000 or more were commonplace. One syndicate played a $139,000 ticket.
But when an implausible horse named Cordova Red captured the final race of the Pick Six at odds of 36 to 1, all of the big plungers were foiled. There was one winning ticket, worth $1,132,466, but the man who held it didn't let out a whoop when the record payoff was posted. He was asleep.
Frank Judson, a 66-year-old newspaper mailer, had bought a $16 Pick Six ticket at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, one of the satellite facilities that offer off-track betting on the Bay Meadows races. It was not until the next morning, when he read the race results in the newspaper, that he learned he had fulfilled every horseplayer's fantasy. With one small wager, he had become a millionaire.
At the same time that the horseplaying population of California was going bonkers over the Pick Six, leaders of the racing industry were gathered in Tucson to discuss issues of common concern to them. As if to demonstrate how out of touch they are with their own customers, this story appeared in the Daily Racing Form on the same day that the $1.1 million payoff was making headlines: "Value of Exotic Betting Questioned at Arizona Symposium."
Almost every racing official at the University of Arizona's 12th annual Symposium on Racing expressed reservations about exotic wagering. Said a Canadian official: "I'd like to see a trend away from exotic wagering. I'd much rather see a low payoff, because it means that there are more winners and that the money will continue to churn."
Said a New England official: "We offer perfectas on every race and five trifectas. I'd rather use less, but if we didn't have them, the harness tracks in our area would, and we'd risk losing customers."
Is there any other business in the world whose executives fret about giving customers what they want?
The evidence is overwhelming that horseplayers love exotic wagers. Unsophisticated players such as Frank Judson view racing as a lottery and want the opportunity to make a big lucky score that will change their lives. Many serious handicappers have concluded that the way to beat the game is by collecting occasional windfalls instead of grinding out profits with win bets on 8-to-5 shots.
Instead of wringing their hands and worrying about negative consequences of exotic wagers, racing officials ought to concoct forms of betting that can generate the same type of excitement and action that the Bay Meadows Pick Six did. Maryland horseplayers would love to have the same opportunity that their Northern California counterparts do, but the Pick Six in Maryland is structured in such a way that big jackpots can almost never grow. Laurel and Pimlico ought to develop some form of wagering that does produce frequent spectacular payoffs.
The reluctance of tracks to promote exotic wagering is based, to a large extent, on a myth that won't die: the notion that large payoffs take money out of circulation. If a horseplayer collects $5.20, the theory goes, he'll go back to the window for the next race and recycle those dollars; if he wins $52,000, he'll put it in the bank and the track will never see it again. As a result, the track's business will decline in the long run.
But this never happens. As American tracks have offered more and more exotic wagering, their handle has gone up and up. There is no evidence that a track's business has ever been hurt because of the money taken out of circulation. As long as a profit incentive exists, horseplayers will keep coming back for more.
That's just what is happening in Northern California. When Frank Judson went to the track last week and collected the largest payoff in American racing history, he said he would use the money to pay his bills, move up the date of his retirement and do some traveling. Then he bought a ticket on that day's Pick Six. He invested $8. His million dollars has been taken out of circulation.
But there has been no noticeable effect on business at Bay Meadows. On the three days after Judson's windfall, nobody hit the Pick Six, and there was going to be at least $250,000 in the pot for anybody who won it today. The syndicates were pooling their money again, and the Southern California plungers were traveling north again to seek their fortune.