Numbers Game - By Dan Liebman

Not that many years ago it seemed fine to know, and record into past performances, that a horse had run six furlongs in 1:11 1/5. Today we wouldn’t stand for that because we now understand the difference between 1:11.01 and 1:11.19. Those times, and those fractions in between, formerly all showed as the same time (1:11 1/5) when in fact they weren’t.

But it took the industry to recognize that timing in hundredths rather than fifths was the best thing to adopt as a standard, which it began doing in 1991.

It had become obvious that timing Thoroughbred races in hundredths was more accurate for compiling track, stakes, and world records, just as it had been for timing swimmers, runners, and car drivers.

Recently, the world of track and field saw the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, break his own world record in the 200-meter sprint, dropping his mark of :19.30 to :19.19. Consider that when Bolt ran the :19.30 in Beijing, he bettered the record of :19.32 set by Michael Johnson in 1996.

Like track and field fans, racing enthusiasts can now also watch as records are set, or missed, by hundredths of a second, giving them more appreciation for the effort and more attachment to the history of the sport.

In addition, the more accurate timing of horse races aids handicappers, and any improved piece of handicapping information is good for everyone because the bettors are the customers.

Changing from fifths to hundredths didn’t just happen; it took improved technology by timing systems. But it has been well worth the time, effort, and, cost, to make it happen.

Today, as the world changes at a dizzying pace and more things become both humanly and technologically possible, racing needs to consider another change: moving from fractional to decimal reporting of odds.

A column by a racing journalist, discussed during a recent meeting with some racing officials and the press in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., illustrates why this change is necessary.

The horse in question was 5-2 when he sprung from the gate, but his odds changed during the running of the race to 2-1. He won, of course.

Even casual bettors have noticed an occurrence that is frustrating to all who wager on racing: late odds changes. It happens, and racing officials openly admit it happens, though they claim nothing sinister is afoot.

In this instance, using decimal odds, the horse in question was 2.52-1, but when the late money in the pool was added 10 seconds after the start of the race, the horse’s odds changed to 2.48-1. Doing the math, 2.52-1 equates to a $7.02 payoff and thus shows as 5-2 odds, while 2.48-1 translates to a $6.96 payoff and so appears on a tote board as 2-1.

Most bettors could cope with knowing that while all bets have been made, the reporting of wagers continues until 10 seconds after the start of a race. The problem is, in the example above, the race was two miles long and the final pool was calculated more than 80 seconds after the race started. Final odds: 2.45-1.

Officials said the problem was a telecommunications failure at one off-track betting site.

The easy solution is to close all pools with zero minutes to post or when the first horse enters the starting gate. Claims that money will be lost by doing so are probably valid, but only for a short time. Those who want to wager will quickly train themselves to bet with a minute to post instead of waiting. Computer bettors, many of whom are big players allowed access to pools to search for last-second value, will adapt their systems as well.

The technology exists to compute odds by decimals, and to close pools in a timely fashion so as to provide a person who wagers on a 5-2 shot an actual 5-2 shot.


Leave a Comment:


You make some good points, BUT...IMO, "IF" Racing is to survive in the 21st century the odds aren't as much of an issue as the payoffs are.

Meaning that Racing needs to begin to payoff in Whole Dollar amounts with some type of a minimum payoff in Whole Dollars.

I think that 1 of the the reasons (among many) that Racing is losing it's Gambling Fans to the Casino's is because of all of the $2.10 or $2.60 payoffs.

When Casino's can payoff in Whole Dollar amounts and Racing is still paying off in's only a matter of time before Racing loses a devastating Percentage of it's remaining Gamblers.

01 Sep 2009 3:26 PM
Bob C

I'm not sure if it is Balmoral or Maywood, but a Chicago harness racing track shows the odds in decimals as the race is being run.

I think it's a good idea because it give the bettor a more accurate payoff price. And we need to do things to enhance the betting public's experience at the track.

01 Sep 2009 5:24 PM
Donny Beisbol

I appreciate the appeal for more information and precision, but much of the mystique around horse race betting (in N.A.) involves the toteboard.  Having to 'know' what 3/5 and 9/2 mean is all part of the learning experience, and the fun.

For the math inclined, and we should all be if betting on the races, the exact payouts can still be deduced if pool totals are readily available.  And at most tracks, they are.

It's not that the point isn't valid... it's just that its such a minor tick in an industry with a millstone around its neck.

If you prefer, it's like adjusting the lumbar support on your car seat as you drive through a hurricane.  You've got bigger problems to worry about!

01 Sep 2009 5:56 PM
Nick L

"Today, as the world changes at a dizzying pace and more things become both humanly and technologically possible, racing needs to consider another change: moving from fractional to decimal reporting of odds."

Ok, then get ride of breakage too! That's going to affect odds. Having 20cent breakage is pretty much the same as measuring fifths on races.

01 Sep 2009 6:23 PM
Greg B

Cutting off betting at 0 minutes to post has never been something I could support with vigor. The only way I would be able to support such would be to include a rule that any horse who brakes through the starting gate is a betting scratch. (If run for purse money, then OK with me.) That would be protection for the players as consideration for taking away that option that exists today.

02 Sep 2009 9:32 AM
Ann in Lexington

The British have always been more accurate about their odds by using ratios that lie between the ones we use in the US, like 7/4, 9/4, and the infamous 100/30 (Burlington Bertie, to Mr. Muttonchops, John McCririck; why not 10/3?). Not sure Americans would want to learn a lot more fractional odds; decimals are used in most other racing countries.

02 Sep 2009 10:00 AM

So, what are you saying? If you thought the horse was $2.52 -1 when you bet at 0 MTP but after you bet it was $2.48 - 1 when the gates opened, you would be equally po'd?  I just don't get it.  You bet based on your perceived value.  If you lose 4 cents off of your value then you are a much bigger bettor than most of us.  It's the breakage that kills the value when odds change from 5-2 to 2-1.  Who cares if odds are shown in decimals?  The breakage is going to kill you on either side of the eqaution.  Basic math.  Lokk at places like NYRA that change their breakage depending on the payoff - insane.  Odds listed to the penny will never change anyones betting unless they have sophisticated programs that take into account breakage and rebates (which they already have).  The whales may worry about the pennies but the rest of us will not change our bets over a dime or two in the odds.

03 Sep 2009 6:17 AM
Mike E.

The Titanic is sinking and the captain gives the order to rearrange the deck chairs. Really, does anyone think changing the way we post  odds on the tote board will help racing? While Dan's idea has some merit, it will not bring one additional bettor to the track; not one!  I have tremendous respect for Dan Liebman, but his idea won't do what we need to do; we need to save racing. To save racing, more people need to come to the races. Changing fractions to decimals is not going to do it.

03 Sep 2009 8:24 AM

Payoffs are completely out of whack at the smaller racetracks.  River Downs and Thistledowns have odds at 4 ti 1 and pay off at 8 to 5.. Harness tracks are terrible also, Monticello shows 8 to 1 and the payoff is 5 to 2. This is why people are getting away from horse betting and only the big races, Ky Derby, Belmont and Preakness get any real action.  So much money is bet that the final odds do not change as much.  With the technology we have today why are we back in the 30's to reflect the correct odds.  

03 Sep 2009 9:16 AM

Stabuck - the odds change more dramatically at tracks like River Downs and Thistledown because the pools are small. It takes a relatively small amount of money to make the odds fluctuate. If you like to play odds, those are not the tracks for you. As I like to say, I don't play tracks where my $2 changes the odds.

03 Sep 2009 9:57 AM
Joe B

As long as the industry insists on stopping wagering on the break, the last odds flash will always be a minimum of 10 to 20 seconds later, depending on the number of imports at the host hub. Combine that with the fact that there are some tote systems that do not request the pools in a timely fashion once a guest recieves the stop wagering command and you have a delay that could exrend another 10 seconds or so beyond that. As most totes have built in stop wagering on 0MTO if the link to the host is lost, you can have a longer delay while they work at bringing that link back up, ascertaining the viability of the pools then deciding whether to accept those pools or not. An old mutuel manager once told me, Bettors are like puppies. They can be trained. He stopped wagering on 0MTP, shut folks out, but by the fifth race they had it figured out. and that was at a time when lines were always 40 to 50 deep. 0MTP is the only way at this time to get a complete final odds cycle at the break.

03 Sep 2009 12:11 PM

I like to watch races and pick winners, but I prefer not to bet races. I bet i lose...I pick I win. Going to the track is way too expensive. Buying betting tickets is way too expensive. This is just a guess but over half of Americans probably havn't ever sat on a horse let alone pet one. Why pay 2-3 bucks for just a win bet, when you can fill slots with dimes and have a better chance of making your money back? Besides minimum wage in my state is not even close to 8 dollars.

03 Sep 2009 3:29 PM
King Lane

Decimal odds would help the game immensely.  I have never seen the need for decimal timing, but odds, YES.

Also, if the sport is to survive, the state take out MUST be reduced dramatically.  

There is no hope if take out percentages remain the same.  Professional gamblers and occasional fans alike understand it's almost impossible to pick more than three out of ten races correctly.  If the state and race track are taking 30% up front, it's an almost impossible arithmetic snafu.

REDUCED take out, INCREASED handle.

03 Sep 2009 9:26 PM
Cowboy Bob


04 Sep 2009 2:36 PM

We can do better than displaying decimal odds.  What about fixed-odds betting?  According to Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of Harness Tracks of Americam, there is a way to have guaranteed odds for bettors WHILE limiting the liability for the tracks.  He wrote this column for the Daily Racing Form back in 2007:

04 Sep 2009 3:32 PM

Why not show the payoffs instead of the odds? Ever try explaining to a newcomer why 5-1 means they'll get $12 for their $2 bet? I know some tracks do show payoffs in their feeds, but it's not consistently done.  

05 Sep 2009 2:17 PM
Old Timer

CJ & Nick have summed it up. The way that the odds are displayed means little. The whole gist of your example boils down to this. At the 2.52-1 odds, a bettor would receive $7.00 for each $2 bet. After the drop to 2.48-1, although the true pari-mutuel odds fell by only .04, the bettor now receives $6.80. The true payoff should be $6.96 but breakage costs the bettor $.08 per dollar.

On even a little $10 bet that's almost a dollar. It all adds up over time.

Forget how the odds are displayed -- just reduce or eliminate the breakage!

05 Sep 2009 2:21 PM

It hardly matters, 2.52 or 2.48, if the bettor isn't rewarded on that basis.  Bring in decimal pricing?  Sure!  Get rid of theiving breakage?  Damn right!!

07 Sep 2009 12:15 PM

I agree with Richard R, no more breakage, we aren't in the chalk board age any more.

I also think cutting off post time when the first horse is loaded is huge and should be pursued.

I also would like to see every horse clocked with exact time.  Not just the winner.

Good luck figuring out exactly how much time it takes to run a length at different and from track to track.

08 Sep 2009 2:57 PM

C-Rob 87,

whole dollar payoff @ casinos and not at tracks is apples to oranges. the difference is, this is parimutual wagering. the dollars have to be sliced to give you a fair payoff based on dollars wagered on each betting interest. don't you want the extra cents after the dollar, especially when you're holding multiple tickets? remember, there is no reason why they would ROUND UP to pay you EXTRA. racing already is in a serious cash pinch. more likely, under your plan, that money would be taken from you, in some sort of new tax!

09 Sep 2009 11:41 AM

This may rank near the top of the list of the stupidest articles you have written.  In the first place no one should fret about a horse dropping from 5:2 to 2:1 after the race has started.  Any moron can understand what happened there.  If there is a worry, it is about horses which drop from say 9:2 to 9:5 in those closing seconds, I've seen a couple in that range.  Certainly this is possible with a massive bet just before post but I'm sure many feel someone is taking bets after the race has begun. Myself I have always wondered just what the "late" bettor sees,in the early seconds of a race to believe his horse is a cinch? This assuming that bets have been made after the race has begun.  I believe that there are a large group of hard headed individuals out there who need to have a fall guy for their inadequate handicapping and play so they cry "Wolf," or "cheat" with no justification.

The other idiotic idea in your article is to expand the practice of using hundredths of seconds into the horses running lines. Only a few of what I believe are called "Modern Handicappers," or "Pace Gurus" would see any sense in so doing. Anyone who is concerned about final times at all or even splits down to the hundredth has seriously let their handicapping wander down some crazy path where little is to be learned. Truth is I only take minimal note of pace splits and none whatsoever of final times in my handicapping.  

09 Sep 2009 3:17 PM

in full agreement w/ turfmavin. odds in decimal format doesn't bother me (computing those yourself wouldn't be hard if you TRULY NEED THAT), but thinking that those little bits of time between fifths and hundredths matters is preposterous. trying to compare one horse to another with such a small measure of time never works, remember, there's a little thing called racing luck. the trip makes the difference....don't fall into the FINAL TIME TRAP!

10 Sep 2009 12:24 PM

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