Win pools? Right now they’re a mug’s game

As racing’s participants gather in Florida to receive their year-end hardware, here’s a glimpse into how the other half consumes your sport.

by Dean Towers

“I think I’ll bet $10 to win” was heard quite a bit at racetracks in the 1960s and 1970s. Playing into the large win pools to bet a little and win a little was how the game was played.

Now, in 2018, if we hear someone say they only bet to win, we’d think they’re from Mars. The win pools are simply not played anywhere near what they were.

In the 20th century we noticed more and more players moving into exotics for what I think are a couple of reasons.

• As new bets were offered, it attracted play. This is not unlike General Foods making 157 different kinds of cheese, and packaging them another 157 ways. It makes you buy more cheese.

• You could go to the track for the grind in the win pools, but you could also bet a little and win a lot with exotics. This attracted a lottery mindset that people to this day exhibit. There were few casinos, and not many lotteries around in the 1960’s; the track was where it was at.

In this century, however, the question, “why are win pools so inconsequential compared to yesterday”, has a slightly different answer.

Horseplayer Ray Schell crunched numbers on morning line favorite win percentage and return on investment recently. Here are the top ten tracks by win percentage.

Other than the obvious – whoever makes the Harrington morning line is pretty darn good – it’s striking that without the benefit of seeing the board, or driver or equipment changes, and, at times, being made quickly because of tight schedules, almost 40 per cent of the time the morning line pick wins.

Further, let’s look at a small track like Freehold. Here are the top driver’s win rates over the last few years, while piloting favorites (via Statsmaster).

Let’s think about this for a second.

If you are a patron and want gambling action, you can visit Freehold, bet the morning line favorite each race and hit over 40 per cent of your bets. If you really want to do well, you can wait until post time and bet the leading drivers when they’re on the favorite. You can cash upwards of six of 10 bets that way.

That might sound like a nice tag line for a commercial – “come to the races, you’ll win more than half your bets”. But in reality it’s a terrible commercial. For a gambler, it’s a flashing red neon sign that says “stay away.”

I saw a Tweet from a sportsbook fly by my screen on Super Bowl Sunday. They were offering odds on the heads or tails coin flip – a completely random bet that should, over time, land 50 per cent of the time on each possible outcome.

Bet “Heads” was +100 (even money), and “Tails” was -103 (just short of even money). The takeout on this bet was about 1.5 per cent.

The juice on the flip was so low because it was a 50/50 proposition, and no one in their right mind would bet such a proposition at anything but an almost-zero takeout rate. Despite it being a negative expectation bet in the first place (not to mention a novelty), it had to be priced near zero to get any action at all.

Moving back to horse racing, the near 50/50 propositions above – offered at so many tracks in win pools – is taxed at not 1.5 per cent, but 10 or more times that amount. This makes playing the win pool mathematically impossible. You could be the best handicapper in the world and you aren’t going to beat 20 per cent rake in a 50/50 proposition.

Horse bettors are sometimes called degenerates, but they’re rational degenerates.

So, what we’re left with is an exotic pool. These bets are harder to hit, have much more variance, and possess similar takeout rates to the win pool. Sign me up.

What should harness racing do with this phenomenon? I suspect, like any business, they should listen to their customers. Tracks should do everything in their power to offer both horizontal and vertical exotics that have value, or the potential for value.

If your race card is starting a pick 4 with a terrible field that has no value, move it outside the sequence. If you have a short field that offers a bettor nothing but an obvious play, run it at 7 pm as a non-betting race, or alternatively, combine the class to make it a better betting race.

Those are a couple of suggestions. I am sure you can think of more.

In 2018, racing’s customers have spoken. The win rake is too high at many tracks in harness racing to attract serious dollars. One way to combat this is exchange wagering, but despite its potential, it too is priced too high, and not offered to a wide enough audience.

Without some serious changes, harness racing needs to continue to lean on exotics. It’s your job to ensure exotic bets are attractive, so gamblers can contribute more money to the pools, and, in turn, keep contributing to the sports’ purse money.