Pick 4’s in harness racing have become a staple for bettors. Early this century the Meadowlands stepped outside the box and offered a pick 4 on their deep, contentious fields at a reduced 15% takeout, which was much lower (sometimes by half) than many other tracks’. It caught on like wildfire, with some pools reaching over $100,000 on a Saturday night. Not long after, tracks like Balmoral Park began offering reduced takeout on the pick 4, and the bet has snowballed. Now, even high takeout pick 4 tracks are benefitting from that branding.
Playing the pick 4 wisely is a learned skill that every harness horseplayer needs to hone.
For us as players we need to ask ourselves some serious questions while choosing to play or pass a pick 4 bet.
· What’s the pool size?
· What’s the minimum bet size?
· What’s the sequence like and how to we construct a ticket?
First, with pool size we need to decide if it is large enough to take a bigger ticket, or concentrate on a smaller one. If we like two longshots and the parlay value with those two longshots winning with two favorites would be $4,000, we likely want to stay out of a track with a pick 4 pool of, say, $3,000. We’re beating ourselves by playing a poor expectation bet.
Second, minimum bet sizes are very important to be cognizant of. At Woodbine for example, the twenty cent bet has caused longshot pick 4 payoffs to be depressed at times, while some chalk sequences can pay more than they did when the bet minimum was $1. In a $75,000 pick 4 pool at a $1 minimum, it used to be the holy grail to find three horses that are not favored by the crowd and make a monster score. Now, it makes more sense to pound some chalk and hope for an edge that way.
Last, we need to concentrate on the sequence itself, and constructing a ticket around it. Most amateurs have a craving to cash a pick 4 ticket regardless of the return on investment, so they play a spread ticket which looks something like this: 234-23-234-2345. In each race they will likely use the morning line favorites and second favorites and sprinkle in one or two longshots. These are the pick 4 tickets that cost $72 and tend to pay $96.
It is perfectly natural to play a ticket like this. In behavioral economics, “Prospect Theory” explains the fact that we as humans value wins and losses differently. We derive more pain from losing, than the joy we get from winning. We want to play a ticket that hits, even if it’s a bad bet, because the thought of losing in an hour outweighs the joy from long-term return on investment.
Instead I’d offer out another approach.
In Six Secrets of Successful Bettors, published several years ago, professional Randy Gallo spoke of using separator horses. A separator horse can be defined as a horse which you love, who might be 6-1 or higher. He advises this horse be used as “key” horse, and making the rest of the ticket a pick three.
So, instead of spending $72 on a chalk laden ticket, you’d instead do something like this:
This allows you to key heavily on a horse you like very much, while adding longer shots on your ticket.
If this $80 ticket comes in, it can pay $1,000 or more. This is a far cry from trying to grind out $20 profit on a chalk ticket.
The thinking behind Gallo’s approach is sound. Winning at betting the races is not about picking winners, it is about picking winners that others do not have. When you are using a separator horse, you are feeding off the high hit rate, low payout spread tickets taken by many, and increasing the size of your payouts.
Hitting any pick 4 is a real thrill, but knowing we are hitting pick 4’s that payout at rate over parlay allows you to look at your bankroll at the end of the year and smile, knowing you beat the game. That’s the greatest thrill of all.