Easy Goer delivered an exceptional performance to win the Wood Memorial Stakes Saturday, but something even rarer than the emergence of a superhorse occurred in the race at Aqueduct.
The Wood offered bettors at the track a genuine sure thing -- an opportunity to make a profit regardless of the outcome. No quirky result or act of God could have thwarted the bet. The rate of return wouldn’t have been huge. But inasmuch as U.S. Treasury bonds yield interest of 9 percent a year, a guaranteed return of 2 or 3 percent in two minutes isn’t bad.
Making the proper wager to get this profit isn’t easy; it requires quick thinking and a little flair for math. But Maryland racing fans might spend some time practicing with a hand-held calculator, because the opportunity that was present in the Wood could arise in the Preakness, if Easy Goer wins the Kentucky Derby in a romp and comes to Baltimore looking like the unbeatable favorite in a small field.
Take out your notebooks, class, and pay careful attention.
This special situation arises when a seemingly unbeatable horse is entered in a small field (ideally, a field of five or six) where show wagering is permitted and many plungers are making big bets on the supposed “sure thing.” It seemed inconceivable that Easy Goer could finish out of the money against his five rivals in the Wood. Since tracks must pay a minimum of $2.10 for $2, a plunger could put up $20,000 to make a quick $1,000 profit. And plenty of them did. A total of $866,533 was bet to show on Easy Goer.
The trouble with this approach is that strange things can happen in horse racing -- jockeys fall off, favorites get disqualified, horses break down. That’s why peope who make these big show bets have long been known as “bridge jumpers.” A show-bet plunger has to be right 19 times out of 20 just to break even; in the long run this is not a good way to play the horses.
On the rare occasions when one of these big favorites finishes out of the money, the show payoffs on the one-two-three finishers will be exceptionally large. When a horse is bet as heavily as Easy Goer was Saturday, and the potential payoffs on the other horses are astronomical, it is possible to make a large bet on the favorite and small saver bets on everybody else that will yield a profit no matter what happens. To do this, it is necessary to know how to calculate show payoffs. It’s not too difficult.
1. Take the total amount of money in the entire show pool.
2. Subtract the percentage that the state and track get from each wager -- 17 percent in both New York and Maryland.
3. Subtract from the result the total wagered on the first three finishers. This leaves the money that will be distributed as profits to winning bettors.
4. Divide this figure by three. This leaves the amount that will be distributed to bettors on each of the first three finishers.
5. To find the odds that an individual horse will return, divide the amount wagered on him into the figure from Step 4.
In the Wood Memorial, these were the amounts bet to show (rounded to the nearest $100):
Easy Goer, $866,500.
Triple Buck, $6,800.
Diamond Donnie, $6,400.
A.M. Swinger, $6,200.
Rock Point, $4,700.
Total pool, $894,100.
If Easy Goer finishes in the money, everybody pays the minimum of $2.10. But if Triple Buck, Diamond Donnie and A.M. Swinger run one-two-three, what does Triple Buck pay to show?
1. The total money in the pool is $894,100.
2. Take 17 percent out of the pool and $742,103 is left to be distributed to winning bettors. Round it off to $742,100 for simplicity’s sake.
3. Subtract the $19,400 bet on the first three finishers to get the figure $722,700.
4. Divide $722,700 by 3. That is $240,900, which will go to bettors who had their money on Triple Buck.
5. Divide the $6,800 on Triple Buck into $240,900. The resultant figure of 35.4 means that Triple Buck odds to show would be 35.4 to 1. For a $2 bet, he would pay $72.80 to show (since the original $2 wager is always added to the odds).
This 35.4-to-1 return on Triple Buck would be the smallest of all the show payoffs, because he was the second choice in the wagering pool. But let’s suppose, for simplicty’s sake, that all of the payoffs would be 35.4 to 1 if Easy Goer ran out of the money.
We ar planning to make a big show bet on Easy Goer, but want to take insurance by putting $20 to show on each of the five other horses -- a total of $100 for the insurance bet. If Easy Goer ran out of the money, we would collect $728 (the result of a $20 bet at 35 to 1 three times) for a total return of $2,184. That’s a profit of $2,084.
This means we could bet $2,084 to show on Easy Goer and protect the wager by putting $20 on each of the others. But by wagering a bit less than $2,084, we can assure a profit regardless of the outcome. So we bet $2,000 to show on Easy Goer, $20 to show on everybody else -- a $2,100 investment.
If Easy Goer finished out of the money, as we have seen, we would collect at least $2,184 -- a return of about 4 percent. But as the race actually turned out, we would get back $2,100 on our Easy Goer wager and $21 on both the second- and third-place finishers, a return of $2,142, or about 2 percent.
By calculating the expected show payoffs on each other horse more precisely -- instead of using our 35 to 1 for all of them -- it is possible to squeeze out a somewhat larger guaranteed profit. There is only one small risk attached to this strategy. A bettor can’t wait until the very last instant to make his wager. If he goes to the window even a minute before post time, other people’s wagers could alter some of the payoffs that he anticipated. But with so much money already in the pool, as there was in the Wood Memorial, it is unlikely that the odds could change too much.
This may not be the glamorous way to play the horses, but it is nice to know that on rare occasions this chancy sport may indeed offer opportunities that are almost as solid as money in the bank.