Courtesy Golden Gate Fields

Improvements Needed in Horizontal Wagers

Dollars & Sense

When it comes to surface changes, the earlier decisions can be made, the better.

California racing officials said June 16 that communication breakdowns factored in a decision to move Golden Gate Fields’ final two grass races June 12 to the main track. Those two races were the fourth and sixth legs of the Golden Pick 6 on a mandatory payout day that saw the pool reach more than $6 million. 

With two races becoming, by rule, "all winners," the sequence essentially became a Pick 4 and saw a relatively low payout of $146 for each winning 20-cent ticket.

Obviously, tracks and horsemen want to keep races on the originally scheduled surface, but they balance that desire with safety.

With the popularity of today's horizontal wagers, consideration of the bettors also has to be part of that equation. Every effort should be made to announce surface changes before the beginning of a Pick 4, Pick 5, or Pick 6 sequence.

If an evaluation of the turf finds potential problems, switch surfaces early in the day or before the card begins. If rain is a concern, examine the current turf condition and examine weather reports, then make a call before a big horizontal wager sequence.

While it's a slightly different issue, more states need to follow California's lead. At brick-and-mortar locations in the Golden State, players can select optional horses in Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6 wagers in case one of their horses is scratched. Advance-deposit wagering outlets should provide this option to players betting on California tracks.

Optional selections are fairer than the current rule of most jurisdictions, where players simply receive the post-time favorite to replace their scratched horse. Consider the player who has five horses in a leg of the Pick 5 but not the favorite. They very likely are trying to beat that favorite and would prefer another longshot instead of the chalk.

Considering the popularity of horizontal wagers, racing needs to improve technology to address player concerns. Bettors should have the option to sub a horse after a scratch is announced in a horizontal wager sequence.

This likely would require tote system upgrades, but there's no reason players who have live horizontal tickets and see one of their horses scratched shouldn't have the option of selecting a replacement.

If improved technology allowed such options to replace scratched horses during a bet sequence, the same ideas could be applied to horizontal wagers impacted by late surface changes. A player live to three horses in a race moved from turf to dirt would be allowed to change one, two, or all three of those horses because the player handicapped the race believing it would be contested on a different surface.