HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Big jackpots in the Pick Six stir more excitement than almost anything else in American horse racing. The atmosphere at tracks is electric and fans are obsessed when they have a chance to shoot for a six- or seven-digit payoff.
But there has rarely been sustained drama quite like the current mania at Gulfstream Park, where the Rainbow Six -- a devilish mutant of the conventional Pick Six -- has thwarted bettors for more than a month. When racing resumes on Wednesday, the jackpot will be $1,399,086.
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Passion for this wager is not shared by the whole racing community -- certainly not by the high-rolling, sophisticated bettors who usually are the dominant forces in exotic pools. Most of them shun the Rainbow Six and view it as an abomination. But even racing fans who abstain surely will get a vicarious thrill watching the drama play out at Gulfstream Park daily, as it did last Thursday, when a bettor was alive for a $1.1 million payoff with a horse who took the early lead before fading to finish third.
Modeled after a bet that originated at little Beulah Park in Ohio, the Rainbow Six differs from the Pick Six in two crucial ways. In a Pick Six, if many bettors select all six winners, they share the pot. If nobody picks six, part of the wagering pool is paid out as a consolation and the rest goes into the carryover jackpot for the next day's card.
But in the Rainbow Six, the whole pool is paid out only if a single ticket has all six winners. Otherwise, a consolation is paid out to the perfect tickets while 40 percent of the day's pool goes into the jackpot. (The single-ticket rule doesn't apply on the final day of the racing season, when there is a mandatory payout of everything in the pool.)
The takeout on the Rainbow Six -- Gulfstream's cut -- is 20 per cent. After 40 percent of the remainder goes into the jackpot pool, the effective takeout is a staggering 52 percent unless someone holds the only perfect ticket. It's tough enough for the best of handicappers to overcome a 20-percent takeout rate; a 52 percent takeout makes the Rainbow Six a worse investment than the lottery.
The other crucial difference between the Rainbow Six and the Pick Six is their cost. The betting unit of the Rainbow Six is 10 cents, compared to $2 for the Pick Six. Bettors can cover many more combinations at a dime a ticket. The more they bet, the more they reduce the chance that any of them can hold the sole perfect ticket.
On Friday, Gulfstream offered a difficult sequence of races, most with fields of 11 or 12, and there were 1.21 million possible outcomes of the Rainbow Six. But with the public wagering $357,717, they were playing 3.57 million combinations. There could not have been many remotely logical combinations that were not part of these 3.57 million.
When Gulfstream introduced the Rainbow Six two years ago, I wrote a column labeling it a "sucker bet" and expected that it would die once bettors saw how futile it was to chase the big jackpot. (That's what happened at Beulah Park.) Instead, Gulfstream bettors are wagering more than ever -- a phenomenon explained by economist and gambler Maury Wolff: "People love the 10-cent unit."
He observed that a bettor playing a conventional $2 Pick Six with a $100 bankroll is hopelessly outgunned; he can't even afford to buy a ticket using two horses in each race. (That's a $128 investment.) But with $100 worth of 10 cent tickets, Wolff said, "He's got enough coverage that he's in the game."
Gulfstream's president, Tim Ritvo, confirmed that the boom in the Rainbow Six is driven by players betting $300 or so -- not the guys betting thousands. And these players, he said, seem indifferent to the 52 percent bite.
I asked the Daily Racing Form's Steve Crist, a serious pick-six player and author of "Exotic Betting," for his ideas on tackling the Rainbow Six, and he replied: "I would counsel people not to play it unless there is a mandatory payout (on closing day) or a seven-digit carryover."
Now that a seven-digit carryover exists, how might a bettor approach the Rainbow Six? In my opinion, a bettor should play only if he sees a glimmer of hope of winning the whole pool. Otherwise, it's pointless to fight the 52 percent takeout. There can be no glimmer if the six races include some small fields or even one short-priced favorite who looks almost unbeatable. Too many other people will pick six winners.
Wednesday's card offers no such easy spots; the six races include four 12-horse fields and no favorite at odds of less than 5-to-2 in the morning line. Even with such a difficult card, a bettor who hopes to win a seven-figure payoff will need to come up with a longshot winner -- one who defies most handicapping logic -- somewhere in the six-race sequence.
It is impractical to play a single Rainbow Six ticket scattered with wacky long shots in every race. It is a better strategy to start with a ticket using relatively logical selections. Then fashion another ticket that substitutes wacky long shots for the logicals in the first leg of the Rainbow Six; do the same for the second leg, the third leg, etc., and hope to hit one 30-to-1 shot who will bust out most of the other players.
This is a too-short explanation of a complex process; bettors who want to employ a smart strategy should read Crist's definitive book or watch his DVD, "Exotic Tickets."
For a handicapper armed with optimal strategy and a formidable bankroll, the Rainbow Six still presents an almost impossible challenge. But even those who recognize that the wager is a sucker bet may find it hard to resist the lure of a seven-figure payoff.
• Beyer, who has been The Washington Post's horse racing columnist since 1978, has written four books on racing, including "Picking Winners" which introduced and explained Beyer Speed Figures, a rating system now incorporated in the Daily Racing Form past performances.