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March-18-2008,
Not-So-Easy Money:...By Nelson Lardner

In horse racing it happens with some frequency: a heavily-favored animal attracts an inordinate amount of play in the show pool. The horse then proceeds to finish worse than third, evoking considerable "ooohing and aaahing" once the payoffs are posted and the show prices on the first three finishers far-exceed normal expectations.

This past weekend generated a doozy, which attracted considerable attention since the spotlight failure was the Breeder's Cup Juvenile winner of 2007, Robert V. LaPenta's undefeated War Pass. The colt was making his second start of the season in the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby, a presumed stepping stone on his way to the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

But there's only one way to win a race, and a thousand ways to lose. War Pass was bumped soundly by two rivals leaving the starting gate, then endured a horrendous trip, eventually giving up considerable ground while five wide before retiring at the head of the lane and finishing seventh and last, beaten some 22 lengths. Sent off at 1-20, War Pass would have paid the same $2.10 to show if he'd at least managed to finish third, but he didn't, so the winner, 7-1 Big Truck, paid $25.20 to show, the 9-1 second horse, Atoned, returned $27.80 for each $2, and third-place finisher Dynamic Wayne, a 49-1 chance, kicked back a resounding $76.40 in the show slot.

That ain't hay. Someone using the belt-and-suspenders defensive strategy applicable to such situations could have played $20 to show on War Pass' six opponents in the race. For that $120 investment, said player would have gotten back $1294, for a $1174 profit. Now, we're talking pari-mutuels here, and if someone had taken an appreciably-larger swing, prices would have been reduced proportionately, but the show pool was sodden with $700,000+ riding on War Pass, so there was a considerable dollar cushion available to absorb blows. Questing for superior percentage returns, the brave are usually better off concentrating their play on the single horse they deem most likely to finish in the money, though will acknowledge that can be a model of frustration if the favorite fails - and your isolated play does as well.

Here's the kicker. Following the race, owner LaPenta belatedly revealed to the press that War Pass had contracted a fever earlier in the week and was not exactly cleaning up his feed tub, a clear sign that something was amiss . . . but hope against hope they ran him anyway. LaPenta, trainer Nick Zito, and the stable help weren't the only ones aware of the situation. An acquaintance of mine has a relative with a Kentucky connection who'd worked for Zito, he received the same information, and was advised not to play the horse.

Implicit in that warning was the obvious probability that since a heavy favorite was unlikely to run to expectations, the eventual result was likely to be a marked shock in store for the vast majority of those interested in the race.

Folks frequently seen in areas where tea and crumpets are served, beanbag types in short pants, unused to the hard-knock life . . . you know, the naïve . . . might think, "Gee, why wasn't War Pass' bout with fever made public knowledge?" Two reasons: (1) The big picture: some horses recover from such minor illnesses more readily than others. To make the Derby with a horse with sufficient experience under his belt, trainer Nick Zito and owner LaPenta evidently felt they could ill-afford pulling to the side of the road in this spot, and ran him so as to gain conditioning and experience, hoping for the best. Not to mention: (2) Racing's a gambling sport. I know how some folks would have felt if the fever had been made public: "They're running 'im, ain't they? They must think he's OK." I know he wouldn't have been 1-20 under those circumstances. War Pass might have gone off as high as 1-2, which would have been free money if he'd been himself and coasted home by five lengths, at which point some cynics who'd heard the fever story would have said, "Ah, they tried to mislead the public to get a better price!" That's not how it works with horses of this calibre, but you could tell some horseplayers the unvarnished truth for ten years running and some of them still would not believe you.

Most proficient sports bettors express utter incredulity when they hear people boasting about "stealing money" by means of deploying significant money in the show pool on standouts . . . especially under current conditions with the minimum pari-mutuel payout now $2.10 for $2 (1-20) at virtually all locales. During the Good Old Days, when the standard minimum pay was $2.20 for $2 (1-10), such propositions were vastly more alluring. There are too many legitimate ways for well-meant, well-suited horses of superior talent to fail on a specific day . . . sudden illness . . . injury . . .the jockey falling off, especially leaving the gate . . . a horrendously ill-judged ride . . . disqualification for untoward bumping/herding of other contestants . . . the list is extensive. And at $2.10, you only have to be wrong one time out of a series of twenty-one occurances to wind up no better than even. It's pointless. It's playing to lose.

Looking for obvious, publicly-recognizable favorites as vehicles for yielding miniscule profits on huge investments is a mug's game. Yeah, you'll probably cash if you lay $70 on Kansas so as to clear a dollar if/when they defeat Portland State on the scoreboard, Thursday. But what's the point?

It's much-better strategy to attempt to isolate situations where such prominent entrants are vulnerable, and hope that the unwashed will get sucked in and themselves try to steal something with an animal not nearly as ideally-suited to today's conditions as the ignorant might want to believe. As in other wagering sports, value is almost always most-readily obtainable by looking for legitimate contenders the public is unable or unwilling to recognize.

03-18-08
Nelson Lardner
MajorWager.com
lardner@majorwager.com

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