Exacta Box, All-Optional Participation Reveals Insights Into Player Behavior

Are people inherently lazy?

There’s a long-standing tradition in psychology characterizing humans as “cognitive misers.”  Misers, in the sense that all things being equal, humans will tend to avoid tasks that require elevated cognitive effort.  In other words, zillions of differentiating factors aside, we all tend to try and avoid tasks that require complex, arduous brain thinking for other tasks that might not be so intellectually demanding.

Humans also value their effort.  All day and everyday, our brains are masterfully calculating the “cost” of spending that brainpower vis-a-vis the reward that we might stand to obtain as a result.  The greater the reward, the harder our brains are willing to work.

All of this sounds obvious, right?  What in the world are you getting at, Smith?

Of course, I wouldn’t dare label anyone that plays with us as lazy.  Quite the contrary; as I’ve always argued to those that may have a different idea of who tournaments appeal to, contest players are, in the aggregate, some of the most highly involved horseplayers.  They work extremely hard and put in extraordinary amounts of time in their contest endeavors.

But what might this simple concept tell us about tournament participation in general?  And how is this instructive for us as tournament operators?

At HorseTourneys, we’ve come to realize that there are a number of what we internally refer to as “immutable laws” of tournament play.  Like Newton’s law of gravitation or the concept of supply and demand, no matter what, these concepts hold true.  We’ve got a pretty long list of them, but there’s two relevant to this discussion:

Immutable Law #1: The more complicated a contest format, the less participation there will be

Players email us suggestions on formats often (sidenote: I should mention that for several reasons we cannot engage in exchange of intellectual property; but of course, we can’t stop players from emailing us.).  Often, those suggestions are multi-layered with complex scoring.  Formats that might take me 20 minutes to explain to you.

The performance of the EXACTA BOX tournaments at HorseTourneys is a good example of the above at work.  The Exacta pools at racetracks are typically either the most popular or second most-popular pool in pari-mutuel wagering, alongside the Win/Place/Show pools.  The popularity of Exactas should translate to tournaments, right?

At HorseTourneys, the Exacta Box format has failed to gain much traction, despite being continuously included in schedules for all major tracks and in our Sunday Featured schedule for several years.  The Sunday featured Exacta Box game rarely draws more than $3,000-$4,000 net.

The Exacta Box format requires players to select three horses instead of the usual one per race, as well as designation of alternates for each horse selection, assuming one wants to avoid issues with scratches.  Over 8-12 races, playing an Exacta game simply requires far more brainpower and effort than a traditional Win/Place game, and notably, far more effort required to input selections.  Because of this, it’s not entirely surprising to us that it has failed to appeal to the masses.

But why are Exactas, Trifectas and other exotic wagers so popular in the pari-mutuel pools?  That’s where the reward piece comes into play.  The potential payoffs with those bets are dramatically higher.  In tournaments, by their nature, those playing Exacta games are playing for the same types of prizes as they would in a $2 WP event.  Therefore, the reward factor doesn’t justify the work.

Immutable Law #2: The more time a contest format requires, the less participation there will be

Performance of the ALL-OPTIONAL format is a perfect illustration of this.

Many players continue to ask us to more prominently feature the All-Optional format on a day-to-day and weekend basis.  Those players—justifiably—feel that this is a truer handicapping test, that the requirement to choose races among a larger group is a critical component of tournament play.

We don’t disagree that the All-Optional format should be regularly used.  We spent a great deal of time in development making sure that we covered all of our bases to make it a reliable format to offer.  Since it was brought back in mid-2019, we’ve done what we promised we would do, and have featured it in roughly 20 percent of weekend featured schedules, or once every five weeks or so.  Why do we think this is the right level?

The All-Optional format is featured on a daily basis on Wednesdays through Sundays, including all races among at least two major tracks.  The participation on those daily schedules is, to put it mildly, non-existent.  We’re lucky to get 10 entries in a $9 or $12 game, and maybe a Head-to-Head matchup or two.  Outside of that, no one is playing it.

And on the weekend Featured schedules when we’ve used it, the performance of the All-Optional events trails that of standard all-mandatory events by at least 20 percent.  It’s been in place long enough to show consistent results in this regard.

It’s pretty clear why this has held true: playing in All-Optional tourneys requires far more time—and cognitive brainpower—to play vs. the standard format.  Far more prep, far more decision making, and of course, far more time playing the tournament itself.  All-Optional tourneys can easily extend to five hours if 25 races are included.  That means, at minimum, 20-25 percent more time than a standard 12-race mandatory schedule, which is usually over in three hours.

The human brain simply figures out all of this calculus and behaves accordingly.  Players are more willing to invest this time when the reward is greater, which is why ALL-OPTIONAL events perform far better on major weekend events than they do on a daily basis in smaller tourneys.

Our message is–we will never make decisions regarding what to feature solely based on what we think will generate the most business.  We are committed to offering a variety of products that appeal to a broad swath of tournament players.  We could be justified in never running the ALL-OPTIONAL format at all, for instance, but we would never take that kind of step backwards.

What this means, though, is that we have to continually evaluate both our existing product mix and potential new products with a critical eye toward whether, based on its fundamentals, a new product has a chance to catch on with a reasonable percentage of the player base.  Development on the internet is time-consuming and really expensive, and our to-do list is long.

Our new POINTS-BASED scoring system will be an interesting test of some of our assumptions regarding format appeal, and perhaps some of our immutable laws.  We look forward to providing you an update on our evaluation soon.

McKay Smith is the President of HorseTourneys.