Are low minimum bet wagers a good thing?

by Brett Sturman

(This is the first in HRU’s new weekly handicapping column called Between The Lines)

In recent years, there has an influx of new exotic and gimmick wagers introduced in harness racing, and these wagers can be played in minimum bet increments for as little as a single dime, in many cases. In the past, minimum bet amounts were $2 across the wagering board and that has been reduced over time to $1, $0.50, $0.20 and even $0.10. These bet amounts have been introduced to assist players in increasing their chance for a score in the wagers that would be impossible to play on a small budget otherwise. But at what point are these wagers good for the sport and at what point is it gimmick wagers run amok?

There was once a time when the sport depended on betting dollars before it depended on slot dollars. But as racing becomes less dependent on betting handle, it has shifted from trying to appeal to its larger bettors to instead appeal to fans and enthusiasts. While small minimum wagers allow more players to be involved, the most obvious reason against reduced minimum wagering amounts are the diluted payout results.

There’s a simple correlation between lower minimum bets and smaller payouts, sometimes to the point where the payouts can look suspect. The smaller the base wager, the greater number of produced winning tickets, the smaller the payout. Therefore, winning exotic wagers will typically payout noticeably less on a $0.50 Pick 4 for example, than it would if that same bet had carried a $1 minimum.

Facing industry pressure as one of the last track holdouts to reduce the minimum bet amount on their signature wager, the Meadowlands reduced its Pick 4 base wager from $1 to $0.50 in 2014. The Director of Racing Operations at that time, Darin Zoccali told me that this was an issue that the Meadowlands heavily debated internally for a long time prior to making the change. The debate involved the question of catering to the masses, or building a wagering menu around its larger players. To reach its conclusion, the Meadowlands cited focus groups, online polls and comments on social media that all overwhelmingly supported lower bet minimums. Although the move was widely seen as a win for the will of the public, it was nonetheless met with dissent from longer time and bigger players.

With the reduction of the Meadowlands Pick 4 to $0.50, all but gone was the chance of an elusive Pick 4 carryover. While still relatively rare, $1 Pick 4 carryovers had the ability to generate handle into the hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Pick 4 sequence featuring a carryover from the prior card. Did the $0.50 Pick 4 lead to an increase in handle? Zoccali noted to me that the Meadowlands saw an initial uptick of handle in the eight to 10 per cent range before remaining generally stagnant from that point forward. If industry handle across the board in these types of wagers were demonstrably increased as a result of the wager reduction, which could point to the move being the right decision. But findings to date are largely mixed and unclear.

While minimum bet exotics remain wildly popular in the thoroughbred industry, there are reasons that same model doesn’t translate into the same success in harness racing. The main reason is that harness racing runs substantially more chalk than its thoroughbred counterparts. A small base wager in thoroughbred racing where a race can have 14-horse fields seems to be far more justifiable than a similar wager in harness racing where favorites can win up to 40 per cent of the races on some of the smaller ovals.

In these cases, not only is the small base wager a bad idea, it’s more importantly just not practical. One can easily see how a $0.20 bet minimum in a Pick 5 in the flats can have a significant handle impact but that in harness racing it ultimately discourages those who are looking for a thoroughbred type of score.

An example of minimum base wagering to an extreme that comes to mind is the $0.20 trifecta and $0.20 Pick 3 offered at WEG circuit harness tracks, Woodbine and Mohawk. Most given Pick 3 sequences can be hit easily on a base wager of $1. By offering a base wager of 80 per cent less than what most would argue is a fair or necessary amount, it discourages any real investment into the wager.

Don’t completely misunderstand, however. Giving opportunity to those smaller players to have a realistic chance in hitting something like a Pick 5 isn’t a bad thing at all. Having a player be able to spread out their wagers and increase their chances for a score is a good thing. But giving a player a chance to be competitive is different than appeasing every nickel and dime bettor out there, in the literal sense for the latter. At some point as more small players come in and continue to chop up payouts, the larger players will continue to go away.

I will note however that on the opposite end of the diluted payoffs as longer-priced horses come in, value is inversely increased on the shorter-priced horses, which is a good thing for those bettors looking to hammer a chalky sequence. As more money is spread out on seemingly hopeless horses who wouldn’t be included in tickets otherwise if the base wager were larger, it leads to combinations of shorter priced horses paying more than they ordinarily would. Many times a chalk-chalk-chalk Pick 3 might pay considerably more than what the win parlay for those same individual race winners would pay.

Today, many harness tracks rely on gimmicky jackpot type of wagers to trigger a five-figure payout that may occur a couple of times a meet, but previously these payouts were routine in the larger multi-race sequence bets. Wagers should have allure and be designed so that they’re challenging to hit, but when they are hit, they aren’t hit by everyone.

Locks and Longshots

Friday at Woodbine kicks off the Niagara pacing series for three-year-old fillies, featuring two evenly-matched fields of eight. Let’s take a look at each division, identifying the most likely contenders and potential value plays.

Race 2: HOT SPOT HANOVER lands the role of 8-5 morning line favorite from the rail, having won four of her most recent six starts and five of 12. It’s tough to fault any of her recent races on record and her seasonal mark of 1:52:2 was taken just four races ago. She was used early a couple times last out and her short price from the rail will be warranted. Next door neighbor to the favorite NORCROSS BLUE CHIP has the look of a sneaky play. Those lines from Western Fair don’t look bad and she’ll obviously go faster tonight; has a mark of 1:51:2 taken earlier this year at Mohawk. SHOOTERONBYE raced weakly on the outside last out upon arriving from Hoosier but now makes her second start for trainer Puddy and improvement at a decent price can’t be ruled out. MARVALOUS JET closed wide last out to be a distant second in her first start here since racing at the Meadows; lands a good look post to track and rally from. ICTHELIGHT HANOVER is another one of the newcomers to these parts, this one for Zeron. She tired a bit late last week but it still wasn’t a bad acclimating mile; I’d like more if not for the outside post. DOCS DIVA isn’t the most reliable filly but there is potential here; concern is the two for 34 record this year.

$2 Exacta Box: 1-2-3 $12
$1 Trifecta: 1-2 / 1-2-4 / 1-2-3-4-7 $30

Race 8: Speedy filly JIMBELINA got back on track last week with a wire to wire job in 1:53:3. That was a follow up to her Autumn Series final where she faded as the lukewarm favorite after being stung past a :26 and change opening quarter that night. She’s been first or second in 13 of her 16 tries this year and there’s no question about her strategy coming tonight. DOCS SAUSALITO got the trip and exploded late to win going away last Friday. She’s clearly a better filly when coming from off the pace so we’ll see what Waples decides to do with her early; short price is likely coming. You can toss that last race from post 10 from TEMPUS SEELSTER and prior to that this one was a late closing runner-up in the Autumn Final. This one did well for herself throughout that series in November and any repeat of those tries gives her a good chance; I’d like slightly better than her 7/2 program offering to take a shot. NEVER ANY DOUBT didn’t show anything last out but it’s still Allard and she was decent last month; I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss entirely. DEWAR N SODA is better than her last pair indicate; lands her best post in a while and may go better than you think.

$10 Win 7
$1 Exacta Box: 1-2-5-7 $12