The Pick 3 Player’s Notebook

The Pick 3 Player’s Notebook

Here’s a real gem for those of you interested in the Pick 3, or ‘Triple’, as it used to be called in California:


One of the things I truly love about life is that opportunities are always presenting themselves. Opportunities for companionship, love, business expansion, money, etc. Unfortunately, most of us don’t recognize these opportunities when they arise.  Most people look back over their lives and think ‘if I had only done this, or if I had only done that’.  You know the feeling, we’ve all experienced it.
After missing what I felt to be many solid opportunities early in life, and thanks to the fact that a wise man pointed this out to me, I began to consciously attempt to recognize if indeed good fortune was knocking on the door.  I discovered that if something felt right, deep down it my gut, it usually was right, for whatever purpose it might serve at the time.  I remember when I first decided I was going to play the horses as a profession.  I had so many deep reservations.  What if I couldn’t make the grade?  What if I went through my bankroll in the first month?  What if I couldn’t pay the mortgage?  What would my family and friends think if I left a respectable profession and became a sick gambler?
Fear of failure causes the vast majority of humans to just play it safe and never realize their potential.  The risk-takers are the fellows and gals you read about all the time. They are the ones who make it big in finance, politics, the arts, etc.  They are people whose egos don’t bruise easily.  They don’t shy from criticism or scorn – in fact it spurns them on.  They seem to have an innate sense that they only have one life to live, and simply aren’t going let anything stand in their path where reaching their goals are concerned. They know that if they have a deep burning desire for something, that desire alone will lead them directly to their goal.
So what does this have to do with playing the Daily Triple, or Pick 3, as it is also called?  I’ll tell you.  In 1980 Hollywood Park instituted a wonderful wager called the ‘Pick 6’.  All you had to do was pick the winner of six straight races and you could win thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, dollars.  So I decided that this was for me and I started playing the bet from day-one.  You can read all about my adventures regarding this bet in my Winning Pick 6 & Pick 3 Strategies, but suffice it to say that after losing thousands of dollars in fruitless attempts to cash in on the bet, I finally fell into a ‘pattern’ that allowed me to collect on a fairly regular basis.
Now, ‘fairly regular’ where the Pick Six is concerned means maybe two to three big hits yearly, and a handful of smaller prizes and consolations.  But I was determined, driven, to become an expert at this lottery-type wager.  My burning desire to succeed resulted, ultimately, in my success.  This is because I never missed a chance to learn more about the wager, and I never hesitated to make adjustments to my mode of play along the way.
But as patient and determined as I am, I always thought of how nice it would be to cash in more often.  I would settle for much lower payoffs if I could figure out a way to experience that joy that comes from winning the final leg of the wager, and walking up to the IRS window to collect.  I used to joke with my colleagues about my wish that the track would introduce a bet called ‘The 1/2 Pick Six Wager’, where you would only need to correctly select three races in a row in order to get paid.  This was constantly on my mind.  What would be so crazy about introducing a bet like that – it would certainly be very popular with the fans, and would no doubt add to the track’s daily ‘take’.
And, then, almost like magic, Hollywood Park announced prior to their 1991 spring/summer meet that they were instituting a bet they would call the ‘Daily Triple’ in which you would win by picking the winners of three consecutive races!  Wow! I thought.  Maybe my wanting this bet so bad sent a message to the cosmos that filtered down to the powers-that-be at Hollywood Park!  Or, a more likely explanation, maybe they had simply seen how successful this type of wagering was in Australia (they had been doing it down there a long time), and decided to try it stateside.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t really care. I was just thrilled that this type of wagering would actually be available to the fan.  Initially, they had just two Daily Triples, on the 2nd thru 4th race and the 6th thru 8th race.  But later on, Hollywood, always the innovator, introduced the ‘rolling Triple’, where a Pick 3 began in every race, 1 thru 7.  Needless to say, those of us who had taken a liking to the bet were excited about the opportunity to play all the Triples if we so desired, or simply key on the ones we felt had the most profit potential.
So there’s my very brief background on how I came to be an enthusiastic Pick 3, or ‘Triple’, player.  Of course, the real enthusiasm came from the realization that this form of wagering provided the best and most frequent overlays available to the savvy handicapper. Please turn the page.

Overlay City
No one who hopes to make a profit at this game will ever do so by wagering on propositions that offer less than fair value.  Go ahead and play the 4-to-5 shots to ‘show’  all day long.  Oh, you’ll cash plenty of tickets, and if that is your only purpose, fine.  But you are going to lose your little behind following this type of strategy, and you’ll lose it fast!  The only way to succeed in this game – the only way I and my compatriots succeed at this game, is to search out value.  We only want to bet in situations where we feel we are being paid fair value or more.  If I feel a horse needs to be 5-to-1 to offer value, do you think I’d touch it at 5-to-2. No way!  If, instead, my prospect is going off at 7-to-1, and I really like the animal, I’m going to bet with both fists.
When we’re talking win and place betting, and you have the ability to estimate the chances of each animal in a race, you are able to construct a simple odds-line and thus easily spot your overlays and underlays.  When we’re talking exotic bets, the task becomes more difficult. In his Money Secrets At The Racetrack, Barry Meadow lays out some excellent ways to determine value on Exactas, Trifectas, Triples, even the Pick Six.  However, after years of making the wagers, I’ve decided that the Pick 3 is what I call a ‘natural’ overlay.  Very simply, I have found that #1) There exists a huge amount of ignorance where this bet is concerned, and #2) Most of the players are keying the favorites heavily in the Pick 3 pools.  This results in a natural tendency for the wager to almost always result in a payoff that is overlaid.  The reasons?  Because an ignorant public has no idea of how to correctly play the bet, and therefore probably lose about 19 of of 20 Triples they play, and, since the favorite doesn’t win every race, the payoff will naturally be larger than if it did.
Sit down and figure just how much of an overlay the Triple is at your track.  At this moment, I’m going to grab a results chart out of the pile.  I’m going to put my finger down on a race, and that’s the Triple I’ll figure for its ‘overlay’ value. I do this by determining what a three-horse parlay would pay in the same three races.  O.K., 7th race at Santa Anita, the winner pays $9.20; 8th race $19.00; 9th race $19.20.  We’ll assume we are betting $2 on the Triple and will round off to the nearest dollar for figuring purposes.  Let’s see, a $9 winner, that’s 4.5 times $19.00, which equals $85.50.  Then we’ll put all that money on the next winner, 43 times $19.00 again, that’s $817.00.  So a 3-horse winning parlay in those races would return $817.  But the $2 Pick 3 returned $997, or a juicy 22% premium over the parlay!
Again, try the arithmetic.  You’ll find that the example above is actually less than typical.  The overlay is usually even greater – sometimes more than twice as much as a parlay would pay!
That’s why the Pick 3 wager is the serious handicapper’s best friend. Value and overlays are the name of the game, and you get both with this wonderful betting proposition.  Now we’re by no means advocating leaving the favorite out of the equation all or even most of the time, because obviously a lot of Pick 3’s will contain at least one leg that is won by the chalk.  The truest and biggest overlays will come when a heavy favorite fails to get the job done, though, and we’ll expand on this discussion later on.
So now we know why it makes sense to make the Pick 3 an integral part of your betting itinerary.  But how do we play it so we can insure receiving maximum value for each dollar wagered?  I’ll soon share with you some of the strategies that have been successful for myself and my betting syndicate, but before we get into that, let’s look at the dollars and ‘sense’ of making this wager on a regular basis.

The Cost Factor
The Pick 3 can be a very reasonable form of wagering under the right conditions. Generally, though, you’re going to have to be willing to part with some bucks to have a serious chance of shaking this bet down.
Now, fortunately, at most tracks you can bet $1 Pick 3’s.  In California, the payoff is based on a $3 wager, but if you use the self-service machines the bet can be had for a dollar.  If you are playing three horses in each race, for example, a $3 Pick 3 will cost you $81 (3x3x3 x $3).  The $1 variety costs $27 and if you win, you’ll of course have to settle for just a 1/3 of the payoff.
My friend and betting partner, David Powers, publishes perhaps the best performance ratings available to mankind.  At several meets, just blindly playing his top four rated horses in each Pick 3 has shown a substantial profit.  The cost of this strategy is $192 for a $3 ticket, $64 for a $1 ticket.  Needless to say, when putting this much money thru the windows on each Triple you have to catch some big prices to stay ahead of the game.  With David’s ratings, though, the $30 or $40 horse sneaks into the equation often enough to make this wager lucrative most of the time.
One fellow I know likes to ‘single’ a price horse he feels strongly about in one of the Triple races, and ‘buy’ most or all of the other two races.  So if he has a single in one leg, buys 8 horses in the next and 7 in the 3rd, his wager would cost $168 (1x8x7 x $3).  The $1 version would cost $56.
A lot of smaller players are comfortable with playing two horses in each Triple race.  That gives them a reasonable chance to collect for a modest investment, $24 for a $3 ticket or just $8 for a $1 play.
Of course, the more combinations you play, the better your chances are of hitting a payoff.  One can get carried away as well, of course.  The idea is to employ a workable strategy, not to simply buy everything in sight and hope to get lucky.
As a general rule, in order to hope to hit the Pick 3 with regularity, a bet of $48 and up is usually in order (that would be $16 for the $1 variety).  This way you have the option of ‘spreading’ where you don’t have a firm opinion, and keying on races where you do.  We’ll get into all of this in the next chapter, but suffice it to say that the Pick 3 is not a poor man’s bet – you have to be willing to risk some capital to increase your chances of success.
Let’s Play!
Any new-fangled wager that comes along takes some getting-used to, even for seasoned players.  My first few Triple bets were simple 2x2x2’s, the $24 strategy described above.  I initially wanted to get the ‘feel’ of the bet, and calculate whether the payoffs would result in the overlays I felt they would.  I certainly wasn’t disappointed in that department, as nine of the first 10 Triples I tracked boasted premiums of 25% or more over the parlay.  That convinced me to make a serious assault on the wager.  I first had to devise several strategies to fit various situations.
Interestingly, my first serious go at the Pick 3 resulted in a nice payoff.  Races 2 thru 4 comprised the Pick 3, and I really liked a horse in the middle leg, Race 3.  The horse figured to go off at 4-to-1 or so, and had to beat the heavy public choice, who looked every bit of 4-to-5 or so.  I singled my horse in the 3rd, went three-deep in the second and five-deep in the 4th, which looked like a very wide-open affair.  I knew that if I could beat the chalk in the 3rd and connect with any of my horses in the other two races, I would be well rewarded. My ticket, 3x1x5 x $3, cost $45.
I caught the first leg with a $10 animal, then watched the heavy favorite (3-to-5) in the 3rd fade late and my ‘single’ run on to pay $14, a nice overlay.  I was feeling pretty confident at this point, being that I had five runners going in the 4th.  I looked at the  board – my potential payoffs ranged from a low of $398 to a high of $2,154.  I’d take any of them!  One of my horses did win the 4th, paying $12.  My Triple payoff: $953.  A three-horse parlay would have returned $656, so my premium on the Triple was in the neighborhood of 40%!
So my first ‘serious’ Pick 3 bet was successful, and certainly encouraged me all the more to pursue this form of wagering.
Before we go over several viable strategies for Pick 3 play, we’ll digress just a bit.  While this is meant to primarily be a ‘strategy’ text, and not a selection method, I’ll nonetheless reproduce the selection plan employed in my Winning Pick 6 & Pick 3 Strategies for those of you who are interested.  I would recommend that you use whatever works well for you when selecting your contenders, but the strategy listed below is one that has proven successful for getting a race narrowed down to a select few likely winners.

The Strategy
The following contender selection plan has proven its worth over time and is an excellent method to use to isolate contenders for exotic play, like the Pick 6 and Pick 3.

1.  Find the winning percentage of the jockey and the trainer and add those two figures together.
2.  Find the winning percentage of the post position your horse is in today and add 40% of that figure to the above total.  Remember to check the post position chart in the Racing Form carefully.  If your horse is in a route today, make sure you take the percentage from the ‘route’ table.  Note:  Use the post position table only if the current meet is at least three weeks old.  During the beginning of a meet, ignore this rule unless you are keeping close track of post position wins on your own.
3.  Figure the horse’s winning percentage over the past two years and add that figure to the above.  Exceptions:
a)  If a runner only has one year’s worth of starts, figure the percentage on those stats alone if he has six or more starts.  If he has less than six starts and his win percentage is 25% or better, reduce that number by 40%.  In other words, his 25% figure would be reduced to 15% (40% of 25 is 10.  25 minus 10 is 15).  This will prevent a lightly-raced animal’s figures from being skewed in his favor.
b)  In Maiden races, use each horse’s ‘in-the-money’ percentage providing he has had 12 or less starts.  If he has had more than 12 starts, reduce his in-the-money percentage by 33%.  This will prevent long-time non-winners from getting an edge they may not deserve.
4.  Give a 5-point bonus to horses whose rider is winning at a 15% or better clip and whose trainer is winning at a 17% or better clip.  If just one qualifies, the horse gets an additional 5 points; if both jockey and trainer qualify, the horse gets an additional 10 points.
5.  Add the above point counts together to get your final score for each competitor.
6.  Recency: Low-level claiming ($3,200 – $16,000) – must have one race and three workouts in last 60 days.  No other recency rules apply, but use your judgement when dealing with layoffs, especially with trainers who know how to get ‘em ready.
Making Sense Of The Numbers
Okay, we’ve got the numbers, now what do we do with them?  The following is the method I’ve used with good success.

1.  After computing the ratings, circle the three horses with the top numbers.  These will be your primary contenders.
2.  If a horse has an 8-point or more edge over his competition, he should be viewed as a logical ‘singleton’ on your ticket.  Of course, if he figures to be a heavy favorite, you may want to thing twice about wagering on the Pick 3, unless the other two races look wide open and ripe for good-priced winners.
3.  If two horses are well above the other competitors on numbers (5 points or more), it is a good idea to use both of those runners.
4.  If the numbers are very close among the top three runners, consider using all three, if your budget allows.
5.  If you are playing a large ticket, look at the 4th and 5th rated horses as possible contenders as well.

Now, you are going to find days where you get no singletons.  I almost always have a single or two on my Pick 6 ticket, but that isn’t the case as often with the Pick 3, since it doesn’t cost nearly as much to ‘spread’.

So the basic premise of this strategy is to: 1) Isolate our contenders and, 2) Decide how to use the contenders on the ticket.  Now often you are going to throw out horses that end up winning, but unless you can afford to use all your contenders, this is inevitable.  You can always turn in an alternative ticket with the ones you threw out, along with the horses you feel are most solid.  If you stick with this strategy, though, the odds are such that you will come up with a winning ticket often enough to more than pay your way.

That’s the strategy, and you are welcome to use all or any part of it as you please.  In employing our Pick 3 strategies, we find that different situations call for different plans.  Let’s first look at what I find to be the most common situation.

Strategy #1 – Solid Contender (not favorite) in One Race – Other Two Races Dicey
Here we’re talking about the type of situation like the one above where I cashed the $953 Pick 3.  We have a strong opinion about a horse in one of the Pick 3 races, and he is not the favorite.  The other two races look wide open, and we figure at least one of those races is likely to produce a good priced horse.
So you know that on your primary ticket, you are going to single the solid contender.  You are likely going to have to go ‘deep’ in the other two races.  Your ticket may look something like this:
Leg 1: Solid Contender   Leg 2: 4 contenders  Leg 3: 6 contenders
A ticket like this would cost $72 for a $3 Pick 3 (1x4x6 x $3), or $24 for the $1 variety.  If your solid contender wins, and a price horse hits in at least one of the other races, you are likely to be well compensated.

Strategy 2 – All Three Races Wide Open
This situation will crop up often, especially on weekday cards.  If the races look too wide open, the best strategy is usually to pass.  On the other hand, it’s situations of this kind that have the potential to produce mammoth payoffs.  Of course, it’s going to be costly to have a good shot at cashing in.  I usually play in situations of this type when I feel at least one race can be limited to three contenders.  Often the favorite will be included, because in races like these the chalk is often ‘lukewarm’, say 5-to-2 or higher.  That means nobody has a firm opinion on the race, and the favorite isn’t being ‘keyed’ as heavily.
For an example let’s use a Pick 3 that I wagered on that fits this description.  I was relatively confident that I could get the 3rd race down to three contenders.  Well, actually, I thought six horses had a good chance of winning, but I couldn’t go that deep – too expensive!  So I relyed on David Power’s Power Plus Ratings which, as mentioned above, are uncannily accurate, and simply went with the top three rated horses. The 4th race looked impossible, so I ‘bought’ it, all nine horses.  In race 5 I finally settled on four contenders, put my bet in and said a prayer.  The ticket looked like this:
Leg 1: 3 contenders   Leg 2: 9 contenders  Leg 3: 4 contenders
The cost of this ticket: (3x9x4 x $3), or, gulp(!) $324!  Now I seldom bet this much money on a Triple, but felt that a big payoff was in the offing.  Also, I do most of my big Triple, Pick 6 and Trifecta wagers in a ‘syndicate’ now, which consists of three other friends.  That way it doesn’t hurt as much when a big bet is lost, and we all share in the pot when we hit.
Well, it was heart-attack time in the 3rd, as Dave’s top-rated horse, who was 8-to-1, got up to win by the shortest of short noses!  I knew I had the 4th, because I had bought the race.  The favorite just failed to hold and I got another $18 winner.  Race 5 turned out to be a piece of cake, with all four horses on my ticket hitting the board. The winner, fortunately, paid $28.
Now hits like these are what make the game worthwhile.  While a three-horse parlay would have returned about $2,250, the Pick 3 instead lit up the tote board to the tune of $3,956!  The only negative thing about collecting all this cash is that you have to go to the IRS window, but what the heck, without those tax dollars I wouldn’t have the smooth highways to drive on that get me to the track every day!

Strategy 3 – The Favorite ‘Key’
We learned earlier in the text that singling a heavy favorite is often a recipe for disaster, as most players are doing the same thing, which means the resulting payoff is likely to be low.  But one thing we have to be aware of is that the favorite does win about one out of every three races.  And, shorter priced favorites, 6-to-5 and below, win even more often.  So under what circumstances should we consider singling a heavy favorite?  The best opportunity for this type of play comes when you feel the other two races in the Pick 3 figure to have a good chance to both yield price horses.  Look at this Pick 3 that popped a few weeks ago at Santa Anita:
Leg 1: $4.40   Leg 2:  $38.60   Leg 3: $21.00
A parlay would have paid @ $1,250, but these three horses instead hooked up for a $1,678 payoff, a sweet premium despite the fact that the heavy favorite won the first leg.
Now, if you see a solid favorite like the one above, and at least one of the other two races is either a field comprised of just six or seven entries and the favorite(s) look strong, it would probably be wise to just take a pass.  Chances are good that the payoff will be undervalued if two favorites win.

Strategy 4 – 3 Solid Contenders
Sometimes you’ll find a Pick 3 that looks like a piece of cake.  You may feel strongly about runners in all three races.  They may even be short prices.  While I don’t play this type of bet often, I know some folks who do.  What they do is simply bet, say a $10 Pick 3, singling all three races.  If they are right and the payoff is low, say $40, they are still getting it multiple times.  What they also might do is play a few other small saver tickets as well.  For example, they may take their choice in Leg 1, hook it up with their first and second choice in Leg 2, and with their first and second choice in Leg 3.  They will then do the same with the other legs, first and second choice in Leg 1 to first choice in Legs 2 and 3, etc.  They’ll often play these bets for just a $1 for some insurance.  Also, this way, if their main ticket comes in, they also hit it again on each of the smaller tickets.
Again, I’m not a big advocate of this type of bet, I like to go for the gusto, but plenty of players are very comfortable with the above strategy, and they only play when they feel they can make a strong case for three horses in a row.

Strategy 5 – The Rolling Key
I’ll conclude with this one because it’s one of my favorites.  In California, thank goodness, seven Pick 3’s are offered per day.  They begin with the 1st race and just keep on ‘rolling’ all the way till the 7th.  That of course gives you seven opportunities per day. Now I seldom play all seven Pick 3’s – I look for any series of races that appear to offer value, and I may play as little as one or none.  But sometimes I find a horse to key, or ‘single’ around three separate Pick 3’s.  For example, I like a horse in the 5th.  I single him in Pick 3’s comprising races 3, 4 and 5; races 4, 5 & 6; and races 5, 6 and 7.  Now, if my horse wins, and I’ve got the other races locked up, I win all three Pick 3’s thanks to my single.  Here’s how a recent successful ‘rolling’ key looked:
Beginning with 3rd race:
Leg 1 – 4 horses   Leg 2 – 4 horses  Leg 3 – rolling key.  Cost: $48

Beginning with 4th race:
Leg 1 – 4 horses   Leg 2 –  rolling key  Leg 3 – 5 horses.  Cost: $60

Beginning with 5th race:
Leg 1: rolling key   Leg 2 – 5 horses   Leg 3 – 4 horses.  Cost: $60.

My rolling key won and returned $12 and, fortunately, I had covered the winners in the other races.  My Pick 3’s paid:  $344; $678 and $729.  I had invested a total of $168, so the $1,700+ return was sweet.
Now, the negative side of this bet is that if your ‘key’ loses, you blow all three Pick 3’s. Still, when you really love a horse, and you have access to a track that cards the rolling Pick 3’s, this bet can be a pip.

Well, that’s it.  I hope the information contained herein has been of some help where the Pick 3 form of wagering is concerned.  If you have any questions, technical or otherwise, drop me a line care/of RPM Info Systems.  Thanks!