Commentary

Betting on a budget

Updated: December 9, 2008, 5:42 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Sports and betting both are hurting during this dogged economic recession. And the following headlines can't be good news for an industry like horse racing that marries those two concepts.

The National Football League announced Tuesday that the sporting world's most powerful entity would be making 150 personnel layoffs, roughly 10 percent of its headquarters' staff. That followed roughly 1,000 various NASCAR-connected employees joining the unemployment line in November and a nine-percent staff reduction at National Basketball Association headquarters in October.

Meanwhile on the gaming end, Atlantic City's Borgota Hotel Casino and Spa dropped 400 workers last month, roughly five percent of its workforce in a single, pink-slip swoop. Reports indicate that 951 casino-related workers in Atlantic City lost their jobs during the month of October alone, including those from powerhouse names like Caesars and Bally's. Throughout Atlantic City's casinos, revenues were down 15 percent across-the-board during September, the worst monthly downturn on record.

So what will horse racing do to hold onto its endangered customer base? Some of the industry's best minds will be in Tucson, Ariz. this week discussing such matters and more at the annual University of Arizona Symposium on Racing. In-between cocktails and nine-iron chips from the fringe, no doubt racing's brass will be clamoring to find the answers.

But there are several budget-conscious things you can do as a horseplayer, beginning this instant, to stretch your dollar to its entertainment and enrichment limits. We can lament until sunset about what should be done for us by the racing powers-that-be, but the fact of the matter is that horse racing is the most consumer-driven sport ever created. Your dollars fuel everything  it's not about TV contracts and sponsors painted on the hood.

Here are a handful of budget-conscious concepts that we can all put into play.

1. Shop for the best deals.

Horseplayers are remarkably sophisticated in crunching data. Fantasy football geeks think they're in tune with the NFL, numbers-wise, but even a poor horseplayer knows more about the fifth at Aqueduct on a Thursday afternoon than a fantasy nerd knows about Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson. But it's amazing how few horseplayers have taken the time to know, or care about, the pari-mutuel wagering takeout at the tracks they play. You can see as much as 10-15 percent swings in your returns based on certain wagers from track-to-track. The exact same $300 pick-three payoff at Track A would have paid $330 at Track B.

Shrewd shoppers pounce on sales, and its no wonder that discount stores like Wal-Mart are thriving in this economy as consumers clamor for cheaper deals.

The Horseplayers Association of North America provides what appears to be an accurate and updated menu of wagering takeouts, coast-to-coast, here. http://blog.horseplayersassociation.org/2008/07/takeout-charts-for-thoroughbred-tracks.html

2. Play the multi-race wagers.

Multi-race wagers like the daily double, pick three, pick four and pick six give you a chance to make solid returns on your bets while only being taxed once on the pari-mutuel takeout. Betting No. 2 to win the opener and No. 4 to win the second race sees you taxed about 17-18 percent (depending on the track) twice. Playing those two runners in the daily double provides a one-time tax of about 20-22 percent in the takeout at most tracks. Granted, you have to nail both horses to win, but that's why they call it gambling. If you're looking to make money playing the races, this is the way to go; if you're looking to have some fun, stretch out your dollars all day and not care what's left in the end, plodding along in straight bets is the alternative.

But remember, multi-race wagers don't glimmer when you fail to produce a solid opinion in successive races. Don't be lured into playing the daily double if you love a horse in the opener and are clueless in the second race. That's where straight plays like win, place and show remain the best bet in the game.

3. Try to limit the guaranteed losers.

I've worked in mutuels management standing behind the teller lines (and punching tickets myself on busy days), and also served as editor for some of the game's biggest-named handicapping authors. So it's with plenty of experience that I've come to the conclusion that the biggest mistake horseplayers make when it comes to betting (not handicapping) is playing far too many combinations.

The "guaranteed loser" sounds as presumptuous as it does negative. But it's not presumptuous at all. I'm not guaranteeing you picked the wrong horse; I'm guaranteeing that money you've spent simply cannot possibly bring a return. How's that? When you play a four-horse exacta box that costs $24, it's guaranteed that $22 of that investment will lose. Only a single exacta combination can come in that will win in every race (barring the rarest dead-heats). All those other combinations as part of the "box" will lose. You start your investment $22 in the hole before lady lucky either smiles or frowns on you with that final $2 chance.

Attack wagers with confidence, or else look elsewhere, especially in tough economic times. Trading winners and losers all day will not get you ahead. It's about being right when the right amount of money is properly placed.

That same $24 spent on an exacta box -- let's say on the 1-2-3-4 horses in the race -- would be much-better spent with a strong opinion of the winner, keyed over the other three horses. You could play an $8 exacta key 1 over 2-3-4 for the same amount. In this situation, 66.6 percent of your money now is in guaranteed losers ($16 of $24), which is much more efficient than the 91.6 percent scenario that a four-horse exacta box produces. Plus, if you're opinion is correct (and that's what it's all about), you'll get four times as much return with that $8 exacta tab than you would have with the $2 play.

4. There's no shame in underneath plays.

Betting to place or show might be considered a pansy play by some loudmouth at your local track or OTB, but that's only because said loudmouth never took the time to learn the math. Sure, placing a $2 show bet is something you'd probably consider more for your grandmother, but the kind of "underneath" betting to which I refer is not about a singular $2 show play.

Let's look at last Saturday's fifth race at Fair Grounds for an example. Pickitup paid $16.80 to win as a playable 7-to-1 shot in a field of seven. She then returned $7.20 to place and $3.60 to show. That's nothing wild; nothing out of the ordinary in terms of a race result.

By betting horses effectively underneath, you can make nice scores with about as little risk as there exists in playing the ponies. Always bet your selection to win; that's the root of all reasoning as to why we handicap, right? But then go the extra mile to double the investment to place and triple to show.

In this case, wager $2 win on Pickitup, $4 to place and $6 to show. By doing so, you invested $12 total, but returned $16.80 on the win, $14.40 on the place and $10.80 for the show. That's $42 back on your $12 investment, and you still would have turned a profit had the horse finished second and nearly recouped all your investment if Pickitup only managed third in the seven-horse field.

When trying to stretch your day's dollars, this is a far more positive strategy than boxing multiple horses in each race. You have zero dollars in guaranteed losers when you make this bet. You can cash all three plays if the horse does its part and runs to your expectations. You also have a safety net to recoup some of your investment in two of the scenarios.

Just because times are tough, it doesn't mean we horseplayers have to abandon our pastime. We just have to shop a little bit more vigilantly. And hopefully we can catch some breaks from the racing industry while we continue to support it.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.