Big pots – the lure is not the cure

by Frank Cotolo

The jury, if you will, is still out when it comes to the lure of five- and six-digit winnings on single- and multi-race pari-mutuels wagers. The Pick this and Pick that and Hi-5 Jackpot wagering gimmicks are suspects as a cure for creating new fans and keeping old ones. I have read the solvent claims that some track handles have been increasing, but I have not seen details pointing to the potency of the “lottery-mentality” answer to attracting new fans or keeping old ones.

Lottery mentality should not be depended upon for pari-mutuels business. Lottery mentality is the engine of legal lottery systems. It is defined simply as wagering a little to make a lot—a whole lot, sometimes thousands of percent more than the wagers. All over the world, lotteries are enormously endearing, mostly, to lower- and middle-class people. Their popularity has many reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason to buy lottery tickets is due to the fact that players do not have to know a thing to win. Winning is totally random. If players’ numbers come out on the whim of the wheel that sucks them into officialdom [sic], there are payoffs. Being a random result also means that sometimes no one wins and the games start anew the next time numbers are drawn.

The fairy tales of instantly becoming a millionaire by participating in legal lotteries allow the games to thrive. In fact, the number of games available has created a larger audience annually, making the system into a fluke factory.

In Pennsylvania alone, the PA Daily Lottery offers a sextet of games that promise buffets of cash. You can choose to play a Pick 2, Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5, a Cash 5 or a Match 6. There are also one-time tickets offering thousands for a single payment and some for “X” dollars a week for life. All of it made possible by lottery mentality, which is promoted with the absurdly obvious notion that “You cannot win if you don’t play.”


One huge problem is that racetrack managements are impressed by isolated incidents that, though they should disprove the big-pot theory, enhance it instead. Such an occurence made international news recently when a “life-altering jackpot” at a Japanese racetrack was won.

According to a news report, a single ticket, played by one unidentified person, won a WIN5 jackpot offered by the Japan Racing Association (JPA); the payoff was $5.6 million (CAD); 70 per cent of the total wagered. There were consolation winners but no number of that group was included in the news report).

A spokesman for JRA reportedly said, “It’s been proven time and time again that excitement and wagering in horse racing increases when the stakes grow.”

Proven? How, by the size of the pot? It is a mistake to measure the success of the Win5 by applauding a single winner of a multi-millions pot. In fact, it should be considered a failure since the clientele of WIN5 wagers came from losers. How much “excitement” were they exposed to when they found out one person took seventy percent of the pot home? Even the consolation winners could have lost money by comparison to the price of tickets they bought.

According to JPA, there were 6,740,128 wagers with an under-$2 base. Again, only one wager was able to collect the coveted 70 per cent top prize.

In essence, all exotic wagers designed to culminate in huge pots should somehow be calculated to afford multi-distribution prices for other bettors. Certainly a single ticket correctly identifying all winners should get the highest reward, but, like a race purse, there should always be rewards for participating bettors that have come in second, third, etcetera.

What if a raceway offered Pick 3s, 4s, 5s and 6s that always accrue carryovers when no single ticket has all the winners? Then, if the pot’s amount reaches “X”—a number designated by the raceway—a jackpot event is presented. A jackpot “Pick” event will be defined as a wager where the X pot must be paid to bettors—and then at the new distribution scale.

JPA made WIN5 wagers available online only. The plan above would offer wagers for online and at-the-track bettors. As we have suggested in other AA columns, merging bettors on and off site for wagers and perks is imperative to handle; but so is presenting events, like the plan above, that offer multiple ways for more bettors to win. More winners will be average bettors, who always get the short end of huge carryovers; because the way it is designed now, people who can afford to toss a lot of money into a major ticket suck up the pool.