The $3 Million Sure thingOne 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?

Nov. 11, 2002
Nov. 11, 2002

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Nov. 11, 2002

The $3 Million Sure thingOne 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?

By L. Jon WertheimSpecial Reporting by Mark Beech

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

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

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 Runyon-esque 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.

In the wake of last week's news, there has been a clarion call
for improved oversight of electronic betting. Less clear is how
it will come about. Thoroughbred racing is notoriously
Balkanized, a crazy quilt of publicly traded tote companies,
independently run racetracks, 1,100 offtrack betting sites, 42
state commissions (each with its own rules) and the NTRA, a
quasi-governing body that is mostly a marketing arm. Last Friday
the NTRA announced the formation of a "wagering technology
working group." Representatives from the three major track
operators--Churchill Downs (which owns Arlington), Magna (Santa
Anita and Pimlico) and the New York Racing Association--were on a
conference call to discuss ways to improve betting procedures.

Smith says that the NTRA has the bully pulpit, if not the formal
authority, to lead the reform. Right now, however, the most
pressing need is to restore consumer confidence. Not long ago the
NTRA launched an advertising campaign centered on the catchphrase
"Go, baby, go." To win back a raft of handicappers whose worst
fears about the system seem to have been confirmed by this
apparent scam, horse racing might need a new slogan: "Stay, baby,

COLOR PHOTO: BRENT SMITH/REUTERS THAT'S THE TICKET The winning horses in the Breeders' Cup Pick Six included a pair of long shots in the first and last races that made the likelihood of a correct bet extremely remote RACE 1 Domedriver 26--1COLOR PHOTO: JOHN ZICH/AFP [See caption above] RACE 2 Orientate 5--2COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN KERSEY/AP [See caption above] RACE 3 Starine 13--1COLOR PHOTO: BRENT SMITH/REUTERS [See caption above] RACE 4 Vindication 4--1COLOR PHOTO: JOHN ZICH/AFP [See caption above] RACE 5 High Chaparral 9--10COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above] RACE 6 Volponi 43--1


How investigators think two men turned the Breeders' Cup Pick Six
into easy pickin's

2:14 P.M.
Derrick Davis calls in his bets, picking just one horse in each
of the first four races and combining those picks with every
horse in the last two.

2:37 P.M.
Betting on Pick Six closes as the first race goes to the post.
In that race Domedriver beats heavy favorite Rock of Gibraltar.

4:25 P.M.
Vindication wins the fourth race of the Pick Six. Chris Harn, who
now knows the results of the first four races, taps into an
Autotote computer and changes Davis's bets to match those

5:01 P.M.
Fifth race starts. Before post time, offtrack betting sites send
details of their Pick Six wagers to the Arlington Park track

5:41 P.M.
Sixth race starts. Volponi wins the Classic, the final race of
the Pick Six.

5:44 P.M.
The Pick Six payout of $428,392 is posted, indicating that there
are six winning tickets. All of them are held by Davis.