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The $3 Million SURE THING
L. Jon Wertheim
November 11, 2002
One horseplayer defied astronomical odds to hit the Pick Six jackpot on Breeders' Cup day. Was he unbelievably lucky—or did he pull off a scam?
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November 11, 2002

The $3 Million Sure Thing

One horseplayer defied astronomical odds to hit the Pick Six jackpot on Breeders' Cup day. Was he unbelievably lucky—or did he pull off a scam?

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At 2:39 P.M. EDT on Oct. 26, when the $1 million Breeders' Cup Mile ended, thousands of fans at Arlington Park racetrack joined handicappers across the country in cursing the winning horse, Domedriver, a 26-1 shot, for scuttling their chances of winning the Pick Six. The Mile was the first leg of that exotic wager—which requires a bettor to tab the winners of six straight races—so when the overwhelming favorite, Rock of Gibraltar, finished behind the long shot, an estimated 90% of the $4.7 million worth of tickets in play had no chance at the Pick Six pot.

But the Mile looked downright predictable compared with the Classic, the final leg of the Pick Six, when Volponi, a 43-1 shot, outran a field that included War Emblem and the favorite, Medaglia d'Oro. That anyone hit the Pick Six that day strained credulity. That there were six winning tickets verged on the absurd. "When you heard that a payoff that was supposed to be $3 million was a little more than $400,000, you knew something was up," says veteran California-based handicapper Jim Quinn.

The red flags had just begun to flap. The six winning tickets, it was quickly discovered, were held by a Maryland bettor, Derrick Davis, 29, who had placed his bets through a Catskill ( N.Y.) Off-Track Betting outlet. OTB records reveal that he phoned in his bets 23 minutes before the Mile. Against almost inconceivable odds, Davis had "singled" the first four races—betting only one horse to win—but had combined those selections with every horse in the fifth and sixth races (thus, each ticket covered 96 possible combinations of six winning horses). Odder still, he had bet not the typical $2 on each of those combinations but $12 (six identical $2 tickets). Davis's winning tickets were worth $428,392 apiece. Bettors who hit five winners receive a consolation payout—in this case, $4,606.20—and 108 of Davis's tickets had five winning horses, yielding an additional $497,469.60. His total haul: $3,067,821.60. "Man," Davis told the New York Post four days later, "I just picked a few horses and got lucky."

Others weren't so sure. Both the Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) immediately ordered the payout frozen and demanded an investigation. "If they got proof that I did something wrong, then show it to me," Davis said. "If not, give me my money."

While protesting his innocence, Davis may have prompted more questions than he answered. He painted himself as a serious handicapper and claimed that his good fortune was the product of "a lot of research." But why had he bet the same combinations six times instead of varying his selections to cover many more possible results, as horseplayers normally do with Pick Six bets? Davis, a computer technician, says his fingers slipped on the telephone keypad and he inadvertently punched in bets of $12 instead of $2, then confirmed a total of $1,152 in bets when he meant to wager only $192. Investigators sought an audiotape of Davis's phoned bets but discovered that the Catskill OTB is among the few parlors that does not record calls. This made it an ideal target for this kind of scam and also makes it more difficult to prove that a crime was committed.

Still, the tapestry quickly started to unravel. Last Thursday, Autotote Systems Inc., provider of the tote system used by Catskill OTB, announced that it had fired computer software engineer Chris Harn, 29, in connection with the case. The company said that Harn had the expertise to alter a Pick Six ticket electronically after it was purchased. He and Davis were in the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity together at Drexel University in the early 1990s and shared a house off-campus for at least one year.

Investigators are looking into the possibility of a third alleged conspirator, and that similar scams had been perpetrated. Indeed, last week New York State investigators quietly confirmed that two large Pick Six payouts from Saratoga in August are under review. (As SI went to press, no criminal charges had been filed. Neither Davis nor Harn responded to calls seeking comment, but through their attorneys they maintained that they had done nothing illegal or improper.)

However the drama plays out, concerns about the integrity of the pari-mutuel system could devastate a sport increasingly dependent on off-site gamblers. Twenty-five years ago horse racing was the most heavily attended sport in the U.S. Since then crowds at tracks have declined precipitously, while the amount of money wagered has steadily increased. The Runyonesque railbird has been replaced by a new breed of handicapper who need possess only a browser and a telephone.

Owing to the proliferation of simulcasting and online gambling, a mere 14.5% of the $14.5 billion wagered on horse racing in 2001 was bet at tracks, compared with nearly 85% a decade ago. If handicappers perceive that the deck is stacked against them, some will gravitate to the roulette wheel, the blackjack table or other games of chance. "This should be a big wake-up call," said Tim Smith, chairman of the NTRA In firing Harn, Autotote characterized him as a "rogue" employee acting alone. But serious handicappers have long harbored doubts about whether the turf has been level, so to speak. Time and again bettors watch a horse go off at one set of odds and, unaccountably, pay off at another.

A sexy bet with lotto-like payouts, the Pick Six is particularly susceptible to fraud because offtrack sites don't transfer specific Pick Six bet information to the host track until after the fourth of the six races. That's one of the reasons that Davis's singling the first four races and then betting the field seemed so suspicious. The proffered reason for the delay in reporting bets is that it prevents the tracks' computer networks from overloading, but those networks are provided by tote companies, and it has been suggested that they are simply reluctant to invest in updated technology.

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