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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : Worst Kind of Payout Shows Best Seven Is the Poorest of Bets

June 03, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE

Brian McGrath, the new commissioner for the 55 or so tracks that belong to the Thoroughbred Racing Assns., emerged from his low profile at the Kentucky Derby.

McGrath, who has an entertainment, television and international sports background that doesn't include racing, seems like the kind of guy you would trust to fix your watch. When he took the job in January, few in racing had heard of him. Don Klosterman, former general manager of the Rams and a one-time board member at Hollywood Park, was one of McGrath's golf partners when both lived in California.

"I just hope they give him a chance," said Klosterman, who will be back in racing, sort of, if he gets state approval to be part of the outside management team for Hollywood Park's new card-playing casino.

McGrath's salary has been estimated at more than $500,000 a year, and is probably closer to $750,000. David Vance, president of the TRA, said when McGrath was hired, part of that salary would come from profits yielded by a national pick-seven bet.

Quite expectedly, racing isn't calling the pick seven the pick seven, because that would make too much sense. Never a proponent of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid), racing prefers calling a bet an exacta one place, a perfecta another. The triple in California is really a pick three; in New York, the triple is really a trifecta. The rule of thumb is, confuse the fan.

So the pick seven is officially known as the National Best Seven, and it had a lurching start on Monday, with seven stakes races spaced between five and 14 minutes apart at seven tracks. Although the Best Seven was approved by the TRA four months ago, McGrath had to scurry to put the program together in time for Memorial Day, and after all the contracts were signed, he still didn't have New York, Kentucky and the Las Vegas race books participating.

Consequently, the handle was a mere $371,000, about 20% of that coming from Hollywood Park and its off-track outlets. The races were so formful that 919 tickets were sold with all seven winners. The payoff for each ticket, based on a 50-cent minimum bet, was $190.75. Seldom has so much handicapping astuteness been worth so little.

The low payoff aside, there's something inherently wrong about a project that carries the baggage of needing to partially pay the person running it.

But that's only one of many things wrong with the Best Seven. McGrath has said that one of the purposes of the bet is to attract new fans, but instead the Best Seven epitomizes almost everything that keeps new fans away from the game.

Years ago, when he was chairman of the New York Racing Assn. tracks, Dinny Phipps addressed racing's need to chip away at the things that discourage first-time patrons. For a new fan, handicapping races at seven tracks, with many unfamiliar horses, is the ultimate intimidation. Running seven races within an hour's time is an overwhelming exercise as well.

The Daily Racing Form is offering past performances on the Best Seven races for $1.50. This is tantamount to intimidation of the pocketbook; fans are already paying $2.85--plus tax in California--for the Form's past performances of the races at the track they're attending.

McGrath ought to call the Best Seven what it is: A lottery-type bet that the TRA hopes will grow until the carryover reaches multimillion-dollar proportions. At Golden Gate Fields, fans are already approaching the Best Seven with a lottery mentality. Parimutuel clerks there said some bettors were asking them to pick the seven numbers.

Until only one bettor sweeps the seven races, 7% of the net pool goes into the carryover. Monday's carryover was only $19,000. The new fan, who's betting small tickets, is virtually dealt out of the game when the carryover multiplies. The larger the pool, the more the deep-pocketed syndicates sweep into action.

The Best Seven will have the same effect on racing as an interactive TV betting network will have: It will serve the customers the sport already has. No new fans will come from marketing strategies that preclude actually attending the track and watching live horses.

"The Best Seven gives all participants in racing--owners, trainers, jockeys and track operators--something to rally around," McGrath told the Racing Form last week.

Golly, I thought racing already had that when the American Championship Racing Series was being run. That series, which was killed after last year, committed horrible crimes: It kept the best handicap horses together for a succession of races, rewarded their owners with bonus money and gave television something to sink its teeth into along the way.

Political squabbling all too endemic to racing scuttled the series, after which Vance said that the TRA would be revving up substitutes. Now that the Best Seven is here, the new, improved replacements for the championship series have landed on the far back burner.

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