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.

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