Pick 6 lesson: Don't blow off favorites

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 


Scoring a hole-in-one. Seeing a major-league no-hitter. Experiencing a total eclipse of the sun. Getting married.


They are once-in-a-lifetime happenings. At least they are expected to be. And they leave indelible memories.


I have never had a hole-in-one. I came within 4 inches once in Stockton, Calif. But I was there at the old Vet in Philadelphia in 2003, when Kevin Millwood threw his no-hitter against God’s team, the San Francisco Giants. I was there with my friend, Geoff Flynn, 30 years ago this month after driving 830 miles from San Diego to Ciudad Constitucion, Mexico, to see the solar eclipse. And 10 years ago this fall in Las Vegas, Tina and I got married.


For horseplayers, hitting a Pick 6 is a once-in-a-lifetime happening. All right, someone reading this will say, “I hit the Pick 6 all the time.” Some might even think they are getting away with telling the truth. For the rest of us mere, honest mortals, we are lucky to get a whiff of it.


On Saturday at Churchill Downs, I actually hit it. I won the Pick 6.


It was a 20-cent bet on closing day. OK, 20 cents times 192 — or 2 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 2 x 4. It cost me $38.40. And when 9-1 shot Navratilova won the last leg in the Tepin Stakes, I was holding one of the six tickets worth $1,321.90.


After I got done strutting with two dozen text messages to acquaintances near and far, and after a cocktail or two at a patio bar near where I live, I found myself wrestling with some frequently used and abused betting strategy.


Only I, in the blush of a 33-1 payoff that turned the equivalent of a tank of gas into first-class airfare from Louisville to Las Vegas, could really second-guess myself.


Tell me who has not done this with a horse like Maxfield. He was the 2-5 post-time favorite who won the Stephen Foster Stakes. How many bettors singled him in multirace, horizontal wagers because he was certain to win — but also refused to touch him in vertical wagers because the price was too short?


What are we doing when we do that?


Maybe the point is to maximize value. Who would not take that free square in the Pick 6 game of bingo? That 2-5 stretched across six races can be worth, well, 67-1 if I had singled Maxfield. When I saw that I had wagered only $19.20 by making him my only pick in the fifth leg, I decided to throw one more horse into the mix. I added 17-1 Silver Dust, whose poor start was exceeded by his poorer, last-place finish.


That illustrates the bigger point. If I had made a win bet on the Stephen Foster in addition to the Pick 6, I might have looked at Maxfield, brushed aside his odds-on price and gone value hunting. I would have made some silly case on behalf of Silver Dust. Oh, wait. I did make that silly case. Look at the Pick 6 ticket. I might well have doubled down on that convoluted logic, bet him on the nose and tried to beat Maxfield.


We all have been guilty of this, right?


I understand there is a rationale to doing this. A player needs to be only 1-for-16 to make money betting 17-1 long shots. Keep betting 2-5 favorites, and it takes three wins to make up for one loss. But I have to admit there is a Narcotics Anonymous feel about this strategy. That, not Einstein, is where we got that line 40 years ago that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”


There is another sign of insanity. They are the voices in my head. Peter Lurie’s is one of them. Well, one of his voices is one of them. His resume is peppered with anime credits. Using his own voice, he hosts racing coverage on the Santa Anita TV feed and often proselytizes the virtues of betting the chalk.


“If you’re going to play 12 months a year, three or four days a week, there are going to be days where this is what you’ve got,” Lurie told me on my podcast a couple years ago. “Make the best hand you can.”


Then there are voices like my bookmaking friends in Las Vegas.


“You should always be looking for a price, shouldn’t you?” That is what VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo would preach to me every time I handed him some past performances.


Lately I have been listening to my friend Bruno De Julio, who pays me to produce his “Racing with Bruno” podcast.


“It’s about the horse,” he said. “It seems like it’s a taboo to like a favorite. I think a lot of players are so darned egotistical that they’ve got to go play the price and make themselves look good.”


In the case of betting a horse like Silver Dust, guilty as charged. Rather than zero in on Maxfield’s six previous wins in as many starts, I obsessed enough over his one loss — a third-place finish two races ago in the Santa Anita Handicap — that I had to cover my assets with a horse that had been 1-for-7 since the pandemic.


“If he wasn’t an unbeaten horse,” trainer Brendan Walsh said of Maxfield, “people would have said, ‘Well, he ran well,’ and we would have walked off.”


I think Walsh nailed it. In red-boarding hindsight I would have been better off spending that extra $19.20 to add another horse to one of the other five legs rather than buying the equivalent of vending-machine flight insurance.


What finally might have cracked through the veneer of my stubbornness was something De Julio said about looking first at Maxfield before looking at that 2-5 price.


“I have had a number of cases where I respected the short-priced favorite,” he said. “I thought there’s too much stuff that has to happen for this horse to get beat.”


Long-shot players will scoff at all this, and that is fine. If there were a perfect, foolproof way to play the horses, someone would have made a ton of money on it by now. And I do not mean the ghosts of those touts who used to sell their snake oil outside the entrances to racetracks.


If nothing else, let this be food for thought. Think twice before blowing off that 2-5 favorite. It is not like horse racing has a point spread. Maxfield did not have to win by Over or Under 3½ lengths. He just had to win.


Oh, if you make a hole-in-one, don’t write it off to being lucky. If you happen to be there for a no-hitter, don’t grouse that they seem to come every week now. If you see a total eclipse of the sun, don’t complain that it did not last long enough. If you have a good marriage, count your blessings.

And if you hit the Pick 6, don’t write 1,165 words questioning betting strategy. For crying out loud, enjoy it.


In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com, with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week Jonathon Kinchen of Fox Sports discusses the first half of the racing year as well as progress that racing may or may not have made in the last year to answer diversity questions. South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.

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