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How Do You Play The Pick 4?

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This post is fairly long, but it’s a topic that’s been on my mind for a while and I’d rather post it in its entirety than try to piece it together bit by bit.

Every player looks for something different when playing a multi-race wager whether it’s trying to beat a heavy favorite, building a ticket around a huge long shot that they love, or just a desire to play a sequence with big, wide-open fields.  With that in mind, this is a good opportunity to take a look at Pick 4 wagering and money management strategies.

 

The approach of the Keeneland spring always encourages me to start tinkering around with ideas and strategies with my Pick 3 and Pick 4 plays.  Keeneland is usually the point in the new season where I start to seriously dip into my wagering bankroll; Gulfstream and Santa Anita serve as sort of spring training while Keeneland is opening day.  Throw in the fact that the last several spring meets have seen some nice opportunities to bring home big prices, and it’s the perfect time to start seriously playing Pick 4 tickets. 

The Multiple Ticket Strategy

There are several different strategies for playing multi-race exotic wagers and one of the more popular approaches is the method made famous by DRF publisher Steven Crist in his book Exotic Betting.  Crist is a huge believer in the "A-B-C-X" method, a strategy that involves a process of identifying horses within each leg, constructing multiple tickets involving a combination of your "A" horses, "B" horses, etc., and then varying the base bet of each ticket relative to the strength of each ticket.  A ticket with all "A" horses would have a higher base bet amount than a ticket with one "A" horse and all "A" horses, and so on and so forth.  The idea behind this strategy is that by playing multiple tickets at different base amounts, a player will be rewarded when his top selections (his "A" horses) win.

Crist’s method makes a lot of sense, in theory, but can certainly be difficult to put into practice if you are wagering with a limited bankroll.  Additionally, you really have to be a good handicapper to implement it properly otherwise all you end up doing is potentially limiting the scope of your ticket or generally increasing the cost.  If you are good at identifying which three or four horses are the true contenders in a race but can’t differentiate between them to assign labels such as "A" or "B", then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to increase base amounts.

There is a variation on this strategy that I’ve employed on occasion in the past that is somewhat of a happy medium between Crist’s strategy and the single ticket strategy and it involves classifying horses by odds.  Low odds horses will generally trigger smaller Pick 4 payouts than big price horses – that’s just a basic reality of pari-mutuel wagering.  An A-B-C method can make some sense if a player places horses in categories based on their potential odds or their morning line odds.  For example, in the first leg of a sequence a player comes up with four horses that he wants to use in his Pick 4, with the following morning line odds:

#1: 5/2
#2: 4/1
#3: 8/1
#4: 15/1

An "A-B-C" approach with these four horses based on odds could like this: a player would categorize the favorite as the "A" horse, the #2 as the "B", and the #3 and #4 as "C" horses.  Since the "A" horses have the lowest odds (and will likely trigger a smaller payout should the ticket hit) the base bet would be increased on those horses giving the player multiple tickets on those entries.

Here’s a sample as to how this might work for an entire ticket:

Selection

Race 1

Race 2

Race 3

Race 4

A

1 (5/2)

1 (6/5)

1 (2/1)

1 (5/2)

B

2 (4/1)

 

2 (5/1)

2 (3/1)

C

3 (8/1), 4 (15/1)

 

 

3 (20/1)


A-B-C determinations have been made solely by morning line odds. 

These selections in a single ticket with a $1 base bet would cost $24 (4 x 1 x 2 x 3 x $1 = $24).  Using a multi ticket strategy you could come up with something like the table below.

Base Amt.

Tickets

Selections

Cost

$4

AAAA

1/1/1/1

$4

$3

AAAB

1/1/1/2

$3

$3

AABA

1/1/2/1

$3

$3

BAAA

2/1/1/1

$3

$2

AABB

1/1/2/2

$2

$2

BABA

2/1/2/1

$2

$1

BABB

2/1/2/2

$1

$3

AAAC

1/1/1/3

$3

$3

CAAA

3-4/1/1/1

$6

$2

CAAC

3-4/1/1/3

$4

$2

AABC

1/1/2/3

$2

$2

CAAB

3-4/1/2/3

$4

$2

CABA

3-4/1/2/3

$4

$1

CABC

2/1/2/3

$1

$1

BABC

2/1/2/3

$1

$2

BAAC

2/1/1/3

$2

$1

BABC

2/1/2/3

$1

$1

BABB

2/1/2/2

$1

$1

CABC

3-4/1/2/3

$2

Total Cost

$49


For this table I add $1 for every "A" horse in the ticket.  The price of the entire ticket essentially double but at the same time, the player has multiple tickets each time a short priced horse were to win.  If the sequence ends up with all four morning line favorites the player would have the winning payout 4x.  If that ticket were to pay something like $50 for $1, the single ticket is returning even money odds while the multi-ticket would return closer to 3/1.

The increased cost is offset by the knowledge that if short prices come home (and you hit the sequence) you’ll at least have multiple tickets.  But, of course, you still have to hit the sequence.

The Single Ticket Strategy

The singe ticket, or "Caveman" strategy as Crist calls it, is a lot easier and less time consuming to implement.  Additionally, the single ticket can make sense in a couple of ways.  First, you’ll end up covering all of your selections in each leg and don’t have to worry that if one of your "C" horses wins that you’ll lose if another "C" horse wins a later leg.  Much of Crist’s method involves not playing every combination possible (like all "C" tickets).  Second, cost constraint.  Let’s be honest, most of us are not big money gamblers with endless supplies of disposal income to throw at the pari-mutuel pools day after day (even if that’s the dream).  Bankroll management is not just important to the weekend player, it can be downright critical.  Playing the multiple ticket strategy isn’t always feasible or desirable on a consistent basis for a lot of players.

Record Keeping

Regular players already know the value of this topic but it certainly bears repeating for anybody just getting into the game or just beginning to play multi-race bets: if you wager with any regularity, and you want to improve your game, you need to keep records of your plays.  If you are going to try and utilize Crist’s multi-ticket strategies, it’s almost required that you do this.  A player has to know whether he is good at identifying true "A" horses because if he can’t, it’s not worth the time and cost to construct multiple tickets in that manner, in my opinion.

I tinkered with Crist’s method for a while with varying degrees of success and created a separate excel file to follow just my Pick 4 (and Pick 3) wagers.  The file denoted which horses were A, B, and C, and then noted the results for each race.  In theory, if your "A" horses are your top selections (and thus requiring a larger base bet under Crist’s method) then those horses should be winning at a more frequent rate than your "B" and "C" horses.  My record keeping, however, indicated that I wasn’t seeing a significant difference in win rate between any of my selections which led me to the conclusion that spending more money on tickets with "A" horses than on those with "B" horses wasn’t a smart allocation of my bankroll.  That’s when I essentially began to play around with multiple tickets based on odds.  My record keeping was essential for me to figure out what I was and was not good at.

Goals for 2010

I recently went back through some of my wagering records for the past several years and I noticed a trend with my Pick 4 plays: the average ticket cost of these plays has gone up while my hit percentage has stayed flat and my ROI has seen a light dip or stayed flat, depending on the year.  So in essence, I’m spending more on my Pick 4 tickets and going deeper into races but I’m not ending up with bigger prices when I cash a winning ticket.  That’s certainly not a scenario that any horseplayer wants to partake in. 

It’s always hard as a player to come up rules to how you are or are not going to structure a bet since a lot of things can happen right up to post time that might change the way you view and individual race or sequence of races.  The track condition could change, a bias could become evident, late scratches could change the pace complexion, or you might just realize that your handicapping instincts are either spot on or way off on a particular card.  With that in mind, there are a few things that I am trying to implement in my 2010 Pick 4 plays in order to increase the value of my selections as much as possible:

1.       Look for at least one race to play a single.

This is something that I have really gotten away from over the past few years and it’s the #1 reason why the cost of my Pick 4 plays have gone up.  My goal for 2010 is to generally seek out Pick 4 sequences where I can find a single in at least one race, with the only exception being a sequence where it looks like the payout could be abnormally large (Breeders’ Cup, Derby day sequence, or any day where it looks like a big price could hit in a couple of legs).

Gibson Carothers, the father of TVG analyst Matt Carothers, wrote an article in HorsePlayer Magazine a couple of years ago outlining his "separator" strategy for singles on Pick 4 and Pick 6 tickets and it’s something that makes sense on a lot of levels.   The basic argument of this strategy is that instead of singling heavy favorites or horses that appear to be likely winners, use your single as an opportunity to play a horse you like at inflated odds.  There are a couple of benefits from this strategy.  First, if you single a price horse that you really like, and it hits, you’ve probably eliminated a significant amount of players from the pool.  Second, since you were able to use your single to get a price you have a lot more bankroll flexibility for the other races in the sequence.  If you go deep in a race and catch a heavy favorite it probably doesn’t kill you since you already got your price with your single.  And finally, you are being rewarded for good handicapping instead of getting lucky by going deep or hitting the all button.

2.       Decide what to do with odds-on favorites.

This is another absolute killer.  Spreading in a race with an odds-on favorite is a risky situation and, for me, usually ends up with the favorite winning which either kills the value of my ticket or just leaves my ticket thin and vulnerable in the other races.  I also seem to get into patterns where if I single the odds-on favorite, he loses.  If I go deep and try to beat him, he wins going away.

For 2010, a major area of concentration for me will be to avoid sequences where a) I expect an odds-on favorite to be present, and b) the race does not invoke strong feelings either way about the strength or weakness of that horse.  I’m not going to avoid all races with a potential heavy favorite, that’s probably not a realistic scenario, but I’ll definitely try to limit Pick 4s where I think they will pop up.

It’s difficult, but not impossible, to determine prior to the opening of the betting as to whether or not a horse is going to be bet down to "odds-on" status.  If you see a maiden race with once horse that has a 20 or 30 point edge in speed figures on the rest of the field you can be pretty sure that horse is going to take a ton of action at the windows.  And in some races there are big name horses that you know will be bet like there is no tomorrow.  If I’m ambivalent about those horses then I’m going to stay away or look for a sequence elsewhere.

3.       Bet my top choices in a sequence to win.

This seems like a no brainer but sometimes in the heat of a sequence I forget this basic concept.  If you go three-for-four in a Pick 4 sequence and any of those three horses are your top selection in that race, you should at least be cashing a win bet.  Even if I’m not employing an "A-B-C" strategy I have a general idea of which entries are my top picks.  So this year I’m hoping for no more situations of playing a Pick 4, watching one of my top picks win at odds of 5/1, losing the Pick 4 in a later race, and then realizing that I’ve got nothing to show for my efforts except a bunch of write-offs.  I don’t need that type of stress in my life.