The Belmont – No Place Like Place?

June 7, 2014
Posted before post time by Jay Livingston

At Freakonomics Steven Levitt argues for making “a place bet on California Chrome” mostly because the odds to win will be so low.

When California Chrome won the Preakness, a $2 bet to win returned $3. A $2 bet to place also returned $3! . . . You can’t know with certainty what the place payout will be ahead of time because it depends on what other horse finishes in the top two, but if you watch the allocation of money in the place pool you can get a pretty good idea. Sometimes crazy things happen. When Big Brown won the Preakness, he paid $2.40 to win, $2.60 to place, and $2.40 to show!

Levitt is right when he says that the place payout depends on which other horse finishes in the top two. But he’s wrong when he says that you can get a pretty good idea by watching the place pool. The Tote board at the track does show how much money is bet on each horse to win, to place, and to show.  The place payout is determined by taking all the losing bets and dividing them up among people who bet on the winner and those who bet on the place horse.

The reason Big Brown paid more to place than to win was that horse who finished second, Macho Again, at 40-1 was the second longest shot in the race.  That meant more money in the place pool to be divided (all the money bet on the other ten horses) and fewer people that it would be divided among  So if you are betting a heavy favorite to place, you not only have to watch the place pool bets, but you also have to pray that the horses with big money bet on them finish no better than third.

Levitt’s best bet is Commanding Curve to win. The odds will be attractive. A dollar on California Chrome, if he wins, will get you fifty cents; if you bet him to place, you might win only a dime. The morning line on Commanding Curve is 15-1, but I expect it will by lower by post time. Commanding Curve closed six lengths on California Chrome in the final furlong of the Derby, an indication that he might have the stamina for the added quarter-mile of the Belmont.  Commanding Curve also skipped the Preakness, giving him an extra two weeks of rest.

My own long shot is Wicked Strong, another possible closer. The morning line is 6-1, but I predict it will be higher. He had some bad racing luck in the Derby and still got fourth.

Finally, I cannot do a post on horse racing without reiterating my pet peeve about the incorrect use of “track record” that has become so widespread (see my earlier post here).  In racing, where the term originates, it does not refer to a horse’s past performances. It refers to the record time at that track for a given distance. People don’t have track records, tracks do. The Belmont stakes is a mile and a half.  The fastest time for that distance at Belmont – the track record – is 2:24.  That’s way fast, and here’s what it looked like.

In a sport where the difference between win and place is usually a fraction of a second, Secretariat is four or five seconds ahead of the rest.

UPDATE: Both Levitt and I were wrong. The winner was Tonalist at 8-1, a horse who had raced only four times and only once against top horses, though he won that one (a grade-2 stakes). The place horse was an even longer shot, Commissioner at 20-1.

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