August 10, 2001

Practical Pointer #17: The Pick 4
The newest multiple win exotic has taken the country by storm.

Basically, the bet is a pick 3 with an extra race tacked on. However, the bet behaves quite a bit differently than the triple.

For one, the probability of winning of a pick 4 combination is an extra degree removed from success. For example, there's a 1-in-27 chance the combination involving three natural 2-1 shots will come through in the pick 3.

But in the pick 4, you're looking at a 1-in-81 chance -- and remember that those are with just four puny little 2-1 shots!

To get a better idea of how improbable hitting the pick 4 can be, we tracked the last pick 4 of the day in Southern California and NYRA, 200 in all, from Jan. 3 through July 22.

Among those 200 pick 4s, the five highest probabilities of winning of the eventual winning combinations (based on the assumption that the win odds were efficient -- not necessarily a good assumption, but a consistent one, and good enough for government work) -- were 3.2 percent, 3.0 percent, 1.8 percent, 1.7 percent, 1.7 percent.

If that doesn't grab you, how about this: Only 10 of the 200 winning combinations had at least a 1 percent probability of success.

You quickly see the point. If the top 10 combinations are capable of pushing the probability of success to only around 10 percent, playing the pick 4 like a pick 6 and going through $48 and $96 or even larger tickets doesn't significantly improve the chances of winning. It's almost as bad as trying to have a better chance of hitting the lotto by buying $250 worth of tickets instead of $5. How's that for low-probability?

But bettors keep chasing the low probability for one reason: the jackpot prices. The pick 4 is a degree harder to hit, but the payoffs are that much larger, too, or so people think. In this sample, the average odds on the winning combination were 4,369-1.

Given the wager's newness and the public's general lag behind the curve when it comes to just-introduced bets -- not to mention that so many people have raved that the pick 4 is the best bet out there (much the same way they swooned about the pick 3 when that bet first came out) -- the pick 4 pools on both coasts are routinely better than $100,000.

But is it a good wager? That is, is it an overlay whose reward is at a premium in comparison with its risk? (Remember, the risk is large. Very large.)

As with most things, it depends. The percentage of actual pay to fair pay varied wildly. At times it was a spectacular overlay; at others, a worse-than-the-track-take proposition.

Eighty-four of the 200 pick 4s were at least a fair wager. Fifty-six of those had an actual pay at least 20 percent better than the fair pay. Let's concentrate on those.

The average fair odds on those 56 were 4,990-1, and their average premium over the fair pay was 76 percent.

Of the 224 winning horses in the 56 sequences, only 30 went off at 10-1 or better, so a total bombs-away strategy throughout the ticket not only won't win very much -- it's probably not going to be much of a value, either.

As you might expect from the last pick 4 of the day, the average odds in the third race in the sequence -- often the day's feature or most formful event -- were the lowest. The biggest prices came in the second and fourth legs.

Since we already know that piling on the number of combinations on our ticket greatly increases the number of guaranteed losing wagers and doesn't really enhance our probability of winning, the importance of good handicapping vis-à-vis the pick 4 cannot be overstated. Long haul, it won't pay to indiscriminately punch the "all" button in any given race.

So bring along a strong opinion, at least three of them. Narrow the fields down as best you can. You don't want to develop the mindset that you must hit the bet, or that you'll hit it on anything remotely close to a regular basis.

In this regard, it's best to view the pick 4 as a once-in-a-while bet that you can throw only a few bucks at when your convictions on the four races are very solid. And if the racing gods are kind, you collect. At this time, it doesn't appear that a grind-it-out strategy of trying to hit the pick 4 every day will work -- too many combinations to cover, and all those guaranteed losing wagers, too.

Getting back to the handicapping aspect of it, isolating at least two, and preferably three or four post-time favorites, seems to work wonders in terms of boosting the pick 4's value. The majority of the overlaid combinations involved beating at least two favorites, especially when those three or four favorites are of the wishy-washy, lukewarm variety.

It's uncanny. So the three-or-four-vulnerable-favorite rule shapes up as a very helpful guideline in securing a value-filled pick 4 payout. Play the pick 4 when you can confidently beat at least three of the four post-time favorites in the sequence. That should effectively (in a good way) limit your action on the gimmick.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were 69 pick 4 payoffs that didn't pay even 80 percent of their fair pay.

Interestingly among these underlays, the frequency of 10-1-and-higher shots was higher. In the overlaid combinations, the longshots accounted for 13 percent of the winners. In the underlaid combinations, that figure rose to 15 percent. While that might suggest the public's win odds were way off base to begin with, it also suggests that the public's preoccupation with mega-longshots in the multiple win exotics is in full effect with the pick 4.

Indeed, some of the most underperforming combinations involved multiple 10-1 shots in a sequence.

And, as you might expect, combinations that rolled home three or four winning favorites returned payoffs that were not worth the risk.

Final thoughts: While the pick 4 and the large amount of raw dollars it returns are a huge enticement, the ultra-low probability of winning means that you'll need deep pockets and an unstinting approach if you decide to play it every day. Otherwise, wait for your turn: a day in which the last four races make sense to you and in which you can confidently play against the favorite with mid-priced horses in at least three of the four legs.

Practical Pointer #18: Longshot Frequency
It's often been repeated that longshots are twice more likely to run second than win. Oh yeah?

Nothing like a quick test run to see if the reason it's a cliché is that it's true. So we looked at 362 races and in each of them picked a horse that was at least 10-1 when the gates opened.

Eighteen won, or roughly 5 percent. Thirty ran second, or about 8 percent. Maybe they're onto something.

The frequency of third- and fourth-place finishes was even more dramatical. They ran third 40 times, or 11 percent. And they came in fourth another 55 times, or 15 percent. So know you know why they say any beast can stick its nose in the picture to complete the trifecta or the super.

By the way, longshot players can almost have it as rough as pick-4 swingers. The longest losing streak in this 362-race sample was a horrific 75 races. That'll tap a lot of people out in a hurry. The longest gap between second-place finishes was 62 events, though the longest drought between a first or second-place finish was "only" 27 races.

Bonus Race Coverage
So Bob Baffert managed to create more questions than he answered last weekend, with Congaree getting thrashed in the Jim Dandy while injuring himself, and Point Given squeezing out a win in the Haskell. Now what?

Maybe not for Baffert, but for us there's always the West Virginia Derby, whose purse is a fat $500,000, thanks to all those people who are pulling on the slot-machine handles (or pressing on the plastic button of the video terminals) instead of 'capping. Hey, we'll take their money any way we can.

Nine are entered, and Thunder Blitz makes sense as the 5-2 morning-line favorite. A couple of potential bomb prices to include are Western Pride and X Country.

Extra for experts: In the Gardenia at Ellis Park, Rose of Zollern and Royal Fair should dominate, but watch for Fast Delivery to be stretching her legs nicely in the lane.

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As always, thanks for reading, and see you next time.

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