Guest Column: Russ Harris at 14,000 to 1

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When Russ Harris died late last month, many were hit with a wave of nostalgia for an era lost to time. The 1970s brought off-track betting to New York and the tabloid papers had multiple handicappers analyzing the NYRA tracks. The New York Post and Daily News, along with Long Island’s Newsday, combined for a pretty large force of handicappers.

The papers also published full charts the next day. Depending on the edition purchased, only the first six races might appear in the following day’s paper. Storing the tabloid results additionally made it easier when looking back through old Racing Forms or testing out new methodologies. Also, in the early days of OTB the bettors did not see or hear the races, or view the actual odds. After a race was made official the result was printed on a teletype machine. The result was then written in marker on a piece of paper pre-printed with a grid and posted on the wall. The result chart in the next day’s paper might be the first time you got to see how a race was run.

It was true that many handicappers just tore the page with Russ Harris’ picks out of the Daily News and used it to bet. If you were at an OTB across New York State during the late ‘70s or early ‘80s you would see many people who had discarded the rest of the paper without even reading it.

One story that came up in the coverage of Harris’ death was the report that he had once swept an entire card. An amazing feat to be sure, but the claims of other handicappers have muddled the picture. Anyone who has walked in the front gate at Saratoga Race Course knows this. “Eight winners, six on top,” you’ll hear shouted by someone selling a tip sheet. It has almost become a comedy act.

Given this, I thought it might be interesting to examine just how impressive a feat like this is. People tend to forget just how much more difficult the going gets as the number of races increases. The date given was Friday, May 8, 1981. Even though I don’t have access to the archives of the Daily News, we do know the winners and payouts for that day.

On this day, a scant few months into Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the winners at Belmont Park paid $3.20, $10.20, $3.60, $3.20, $5.60, $4.40, $4.80, $2.40 and $10.40. To gauge the difficulty of picking these winners it makes sense to come up with a fair value for a mythical “Pick 9.”

Fortunately, since the winners were on the short side of the odds spectrum we can use the wisdom of crowds to get an answer. We need to approximate the win pool percentages each horse received. Numerous studies over the years have shown that horses tend to win at about the percentages the public assigns to them. The public tends to overbet longshots, however, and underbet favorites. (Though the latter effect is not as strong as it once was.)

As the event in question was nearly 40 years ago, a book from the period comes to the rescue. In 1979’s Winning at the Races,  math professor William Quirin presents the following formula to get approximate win pool percentages for a track with dime breakage:

(1 – Takeout Percentage) / (Odds + 1.05)

If we use this formula at a 17 percent takeout rate (the level in 1981), the implied win pool percentages for this series of races are 50.30%, 16.12%, 44.86%, 50.30%, 29.12%, 36.89%, 33.88%, 66.40%, and 15.81%.

To get the expected probability for the whole sequence we multiply these numbers by each other. The product yields a probability of .00699% for hitting the whole sequence. This translates to odds of 14,304.62 to 1 and the fair $2 payoff for this bet would be $28,611.25.

Interestingly, this is also a lesson in the effects of takeout over a series of bets. The parlay calculation for this nine-race sequence results in $4,336. Quite a difference.

Though not perfect, it is a nice approximation of why Russ Harris was so proud of this day. He basically gave out a $29,000 Pick 9 cold. And I am sure the next day on the first race he missed some guy sitting at an OTB parlor started complaining.

May 8, 1981

Race          Payoff Odds   Implied %     Fair Odds      Fair $2 Payoff
1                3.20     0.60     50.30%            0.99                 $3.98
2                10.20   4.10     16.12%            5.20                 $12.41
3                3.60     0.80     44.86%            1.23                 $4.46
4                3.20     0.60     50.30%            0.99                 $3.98
5                5.60     1.80     29.12%            2.43                 $6.87
6                4.40     1.20     36.89%            1.71                 $5.42
7                4.80     1.40     33.88%            1.95                 $5.90
8                2.40     0.20     66.40%            0.51                 $3.01
9                10.40   4.20     15.81%            5.33                 $12.65
                                          0.00699%       14,304.62        $28,611.25


Editor’s note: Nick Willett is a freelance writer from Upstate New York.