Triple Crown Bubble Makes for Sucker Wagers: David Papadopoulos

There’s something about a Triple Crown bid that turns gamblers into suckers.

It must be the thirst to see the feat accomplished for the first time since 1978 that overwhelms horseplayers, both novice and veteran alike, when they get to the betting windows for the Belmont Stakes. They throw money blindly at the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes as if he were the next coming of Secretariat.

This year will be no different. When I’ll Have Another takes the track for the Belmont on June 9, he will be one of the great speculative bubbles of the year in sports wagering.

Look at recent history.

Eleven horses have arrived at Elmont, New York, in Long Island with a chance at sweeping the Triple Crown since Affirmed pulled it off 34 years ago. The betting public made each one of those 11 horses the favorite. On average, their odds were 4-5, meaning bettors put up $5 for a chance to win $4.

None in the group had odds higher than 8-5. Three of the horses, including the last two, went off at 1-4. (There’s a saying, by the way, that we have at the track about 1-4 favorites and the chalk-eating weasels who bet on them: If you already have the four, you don’t need the one.)

Their margin of defeat ranged from a dirty nose (Real Quiet in 1998) to the length of the stretch (Big Brown in 2008).

Now compare these results to those from ordinary afternoons at the racetrack. In the 18 days of racing since Belmont Park opened this year in April, there have been 106 races where the bettors’ first choice had odds ranging from 1-4 to 8-5, according to data compiled by Equibase Company.

70-1 Upset

The favorite won 47 of the 106 races. The longest losing streak for the group in that span was six races.

The 0-for-11 drought (and 3-for-21 spell when extending the search back to the 1950s) from Triple Crown aspirants speaks to how over-bet this bunch was. Odds on most of these horses should have been double, triple or quadruple what they were.

The sucker money they attracted from bettors created value in the rest of the field, swelling the odds on some horses to astronomical levels. In four of the past five failed Triple Crown bids, the winner paid more than 25-1, including Sarava, who hit the finish line at 70-1 in 2002.

I’d estimate that I’ll Have Another enters the starting gate with odds right around the 4-5 average of his predecessors. Fairer value to me would be at least the 3-1 odds he offered in the Preakness (note that he was 15-1 in the Derby).

He’s proven himself a talented horse in wearing down frontrunner Bodemeister to win the Derby and Preakness and he’s got a temperament that’s conducive to navigating the added distance in the 1 1/2-mile (2.4 kilometers) Belmont.

Yet in falling in love with the attributes of the conquering hero, bettors always forget just how difficult it is to sweep the Triple Crown. Winning three races at three different tracks and at three different distances over a five-week span is a grueling test. Almost no trainer would even try such a thing with an elite racehorse any other time of the year.

Root with your heart. Bet with your head.

You have three weeks to pick out the Triple Crown spoiler.

(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)

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