February 24, 2024

How to play a Power Box bet profitably

Flightline
Flightline, with Flavien Prat aboard, wins the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic for trainer John Sadler (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

Power Box Profitably: A Retrospective on the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Classic

To say 2022 was an exciting year for horseplayers would be an understatement. The year saw Rich Strike win the Kentucky Derby as an 80-1 Longshot paying out several thousands of dollars for exotics, a record-setting $0.10 superfecta payout of nearly $73,000 at Keeneland, and Flightline kept the world on pins and needles watching the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Many were looking to see if he would cement his place in history as one of the greatest horses of all time, while other horseplayers were waiting to see if the score of the century could be made by fading a seemingly unbeatable favorite.

It’s a constant battle that horseplayers must struggle with when building a ticket: trying to strike the right balance between building a ticket that has enough coverage with a chance to catch a lucrative payout, while still constraining the ticket so that it doesn’t grossly exceed the payout of a more conventional outcome.

Boxing is undoubtedly the easiest way to get coverage in a race as every possible combination of finish order for the horses included gets covered in a single wager. Because all possible outcomes are included regardless of the handicapper’s opinion of how the race will unfold, a tradeoff with boxing is that the price of the ticket will grow exponentially as more horses are added into the mix.

While much nuance isn’t needed when there are three horses that appear clear to finish in the money, it can be tough at times to justify the addition of longshots to the ticket when the price starts to expand beyond what a probable outcome with the races favorites is likely to pay. When players have a more nuanced opinion of a race and they want to cover the possibility of one or more longshots slipping into the winning combination of a vertical exotic, they should consider playing a power-box wager instead.

Power-Box Wagers Explained

How does a power–box help to cut down on the size of a ticket? Let’s start by looking at a traditional box wager with three horses: A, B, and C. If we were to create a trifecta box using all three horses, there are 6 different combinations being made with that bet, shown below.

Trifecta Box A,B,C
1ABC
2ACB
3BAC
4BCA
5CAB
6CBA

But let’s say we want to include one additional horse, D, to our box in order to add a little bit of coverage on the chance that we can catch a long shot. As we can see below, the addition of that one extra horse has tripled the number of combinations and likewise the cost of our ticket.

Trifecta Box A,B,C,D
1ABC
2ABD
3ACB
4ACD
5ADB
6ADC
7BAC
8BAD
9BCA
10BCD
11BDA
12BDC
13CAB
14CAD
15CBA
16CBD
17CDA
18CDB

If we have a little more nuance to our opinion, we might be able to change it from “horses A-D are likely to finish in the money” to “horses B and C are likely to be in the money with either horse A or horse D”. So now instead of a trifecta box with A-D, we can place two boxes of A,B,C and D,B,C which cuts the size of the wager down to just 12 combinations on two tickets.

Trifecta Box A,B,C
1ABC
2ACB
3BAC
4BCA
5CAB
6CBA
Trifecta Box D,B,C
7DBC
8DCB
9BDC
10BCD
11CDB
12CBD

Power boxing makes this even easier by allowing us to place the exact same wager on a single ticket by power boxing A and D with B with C.

Trifecta Power-Box A,D/B/C
1ABC
2ACB
3BAC
4BCA
5CAB
6CBA
7DBC
8DCB
9BDC
10BCD
11CDB
12CBD

While it may be easy enough to play two separate tickets when we’re only dealing with four horses on a trifecta, when we try and add more horses for greater coverage or play a larger exotic like the superfecta and super high five it can become a challenge to keep track of all the combinations a player wants to make, especially amidst the chaos of big events going on at the track.

Handicapping with a power-box in mind

So what better example to use for how a power-box can help simplify a handicapper’s wagering than one of the buzziest races in all of 2022, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Since winning the Pacific Classic by an astounding 19 ¼ lengths, the world of racing was buzzing with speculation that Flightline might be the horse of a generation with comparisons being made to Secretariat and his dominant margins of victory. As we saw multiple horses duck out of the Classic in favor of other Breeders’ Cup races that would not include such a formidable favorite, it was well understood that he would be a heavy favorite amongst the betting public and it felt like the race was going to be a mere formality before Flightline was crowned champion.

Goliaths have fallen in racing before though. In the 2008 Belmont Stakes we saw a similarly heavy favorite, Big Brown, enter the race in pursuit of the triple crown undefeated through his career to that point with dominant margins of victory in each of his races. Big Brown went off at odds of 1-4 in the race, but on the final turn he hit a troubled trip that saw him eased up with a DNF. The result for bettors was 4 and 5 figure payouts for the trifecta and superfecta, despite a dead heat for 3rd and 4th dividing the payouts across two combinations. A win from Flightline in the Classic was sure to yield modest payouts for any combination that had him on top, but that didn’t stop many fans from thinking up ways they might be able to add some coverage to their ticket on the off chance of an upset like what was seen in 2008. One such way they may have been able to do so was with a well-crafted power-box ticket in the trifecta and superfecta pools.

The first step in crafting any power-box ticket is to understand which horses should be grouped together into each cohort of the box. If we think about crafting a trifecta power-box with three different groups (call them anything you’d like, but here we’ll use A, B, and C), we’re betting that we will have one horse from each of the groups finish in the money. While a player could choose to include a horse in multiple groups, limiting the size of the ticket where possible is a big priority here so we’ll only put a horse into a single group.

One of the best ways to look at how horses can be grouped together in such a manner is by looking at how the pace of the race is likely to unfold in the formative stages. For that insight, we can look to the Run Style and Early Speed Points (PTS) in the Race Summary of Brisnet Ultimate Past Performances. When we look at the Race Summary above from the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Classic, we can see a wide range of run styles and early speed that made these groupings naturally easy.

Group A – E & E/P, 8

(2) Life Is Good, (4) Flightline

The first thing that jumps off the page of the Brisnet Ultimate Race Summary was the 8 PTS that both Life is Good and Flightline had going into the race, the maximum that the scale allows for. With a 2-point lead over the third quickest horse, a speed duel looked to be in store between these two with the first of Todd Pletcher’s two horses in the race, Life is Good, likely to go for broke out the gate to see if it could tire out the heavy favorite. By grouping these horses together, a player is expecting that one of these horses will fade from contention, unable to maintain such a feverish pace leaving only one of them to finish in the money. Having never been in such a speed duel before in his career, the possibility of an Achilles heel in Flightline’s game could exist and give reason for a player to try and catch the possibility of him finishing out of the money like Big Brown.

Group B – E & E/P, 6

(5) Hot Rod Charlie, (7) Olympiad

With a brisk 6 PTS, Hot Rod Charlie and Olympiad appeared poised on paper to lead the rest of the pack behind the 8 PTS early-speed in the formative stages of the race. Olympiad showed stronger best pace figures, but Hot Rod Charlie had better average distance and surface figures going into the race. Both horses seemed in contention with each other, and any trouble in the trip that one might create for the other could lead to them falling out of the money when the race entered into the final stretch.

Group C – P, 4 & 3

(1) Taiba, (3) Happy Saver, (6) Epicenter

Moving further back in the projected pack, we have the clear-cut pressers of Taiba, Happy Saver, and Epicenter. All three of these horses had a habit in previous races of sitting towards the middle of the field before making a late push to the lead which made it likely that these three would be battling for position amongst each other. Having a tightly packed group in the middle of the pack could lead to traffic that limited the ability for all but one of these horses to make the late push that would be needed.

Group D – S, 2

(8) Rich Strike

The lone closer in the race, Rich Strike epitomized a perfect trip in the late stretches of his only Grade 1 win in the Kentucky Derby. After finishing out of the money in both the Belmont and Travers stakes, he did bounce back to finish second in the Lukas Classic but did so with a slower speed figure and in a smaller 6 horse field. It was doubtful he’d be able to put on a solid performance against such stiff competition, and any success he might have in the race would be independent of any specific group of horses.

The Trifecta Power-Box Ticket

Knowing that we want to play the verticals and knowing that we want to catch a longshot, the natural instinct might be to box the horses in contention for the trifecta. The simplest $0.50 trifecta ticket with all eight entrants would cost a player $168. Cutting out Rich Strike from the ticket would reduce the size down to $105. A nice improvement, but still likely to produce a negative ROI with such a heavy favorite in the field. We could surrender to the likeliest set of outcomes and key Flightline to win the race further reducing the ticket down to $45, but doing so eliminates the possibility of a longshot juicing the payout which is the opposite of what we’d be looking to do in this scenario. Using a power-box is the best option we’d have to reduce the ticket down further while still keeping the broader coverage of upset scenarios our handicapping uncovered above.

By playing a single power-box trifecta of 2,4 (Group A) with 5,7 (Group B) with 1,3,6 (Group C), we get a single $36 ticket that gives us the same amount of coverage as the six-$6 trifecta tickets below.

2,4 / 5,7 / 1,3,6             5,7 / 2,4 / 1,3,6             1,3,6 / 2,4 / 5,7

2,4 / 1,3,6 / 5,7             5,7 / 1,3,6 / 2,4             1,3,6 / 5,7 / 2,4

The Race

Through the opening quarter of a mile, the race largely went true to form. Rounding the first turn with a 4 ½ length lead over the rest of the pack were our early speedsters in Group A. Pletcher’s Life Is Good was giving it his all pushing the pace of the race with a ½ length lead over Flightline and saving good ground on the inside 2 path. Back towards the rest of the pack was Hot Rod Charlie and Olympiad taking their position in the race as we expected from Group B. Happy Saver broke poorly out of the gate and was the first horse to drop out of contention, but Epicenter and Taiba were right where we’d expect them in the pack.

Rounding the corner to the ½ mile mark, Taiba started to make a move on the outside putting a little pressure on Hot Rod Charlie, while Epicenter was being eased up and taken out of the race leaving Taiba as the sole contender from Group C. The speedsters in Group A continued their duel growing their lead to 13 lengths by the ¾ mile mark and Life is Good steadily grew his lead on Flightline to 2 1/2 lengths. It was at this point though that Flightline kicked in the after burners and by the time the two had rounded the final turn and hit the mile mark he had the lead in the race by a head.

Hot Rod Charlie kept his position rounding through the same turn forcing Life is Good to lose ground in the 4 path on the outside. The continued pressure though proved too much for Hot Rod Charlie as he started to lose steam heading in the final stretch dropping him out of contention behind Olympiad and Rich Strike. Likewise, Life Is Good had exhausted his energy from the blazing pace that he set and gave way to slip back to a finish in 5th place outside of the money. Meanwhile in the battle for second way back behind Flightline were Olympiad and Taiba, with Olympiad getting the final push needed to take 2nd by a half-length.

Flightline did ultimately prove to be one of the horses of all-time, but the power-box also proved to be a winning ticket as exactly one horse from Group A, B, and C finished in the money. At a payout of $41.63, our $36 ticket yielded an ROI of 15%. While a show bet on Flightline yielded a similar ROI, our power-box ticket provided a much better outcome than the -60% ROI our standard trifecta box wager would have given us while still keeping alive the opportunity for a much bigger payout.

Power-Boxing The Superfecta

We’ve seen how the power-box can be useful with a trifecta, but can it also be used with a superfecta? If we look back at how we initially broke apart the field into separate groups, Rich Strike as the lone Sustained pace type in the race was left out in his own group as he wasn’t a strong contender to finish in the money and his running style didn’t appear like it would be impacted too heavily by any specific group of horses. Let’s run the same scenario as we did above, but this time with a fourth group added in, Group D, that includes Rich Strike to round out the fourth position we’d need for a superfecta ticket. While we may not see Rich Strike as very likely to finish in the money, just about any horse can finish fourth in a race. And who knows, we might have seen another miracle out of him with a perfect trip just as we did earlier in the year on the first Saturday in May.

This time we would be playing a single power-box $0.10 superfecta of 2,4 (Group A) with 5,7 (Group B) with 1,3,6 (Group C) with 8 (Group D) for a single ticket cost of $28.80. The convenience of the power-box shines especially bright here as this single ticket offers the exact same coverage as the 24 superfecta tickets below!

2,4/5,7/1,3,6/8             5,7/2,4/1,3,6/8             1,3,6/2,4/5,7/8             8/2,4/5,7/1,3,6

2,4/1,3,6/5,7/8             5,7/1,3,6/2,4/8             1,3,6/5,7/2,4/8             8/2,4/1,3,6/5,7

2,4/5,7/8/1,3,6             5,7/2,4/8/1,3,6             1,3,6/2,4/8/5,7             8/5,7/2,4/1,3,6

2,4/1,3,6/8/5,7             5,7/1,3,6/8/2,4             1,3,6/5,7/8/2,4             8/5,7/1,3,6/2,4

2,4/8/5,7/1,3,6             5,7/8/2,4/1,3,6             1,3,6/8/2,4/5,7             8/1,3,6/2,4/5,7

2,4/8/1,3,6/5,7             5,7/8/1,3,6/2,4             1,3,6/8/5,7/2,4             8/1,3,6/5,7/2,4

With a final finish order of 4 (Group A), 7 (Group B), 1 (Group C), and 8 (Group D); we once again had exactly one horse from each of the groups finishing in the winning combination and our power-box ticket would have paid out $69.16. This 140% ROI on our ticket well exceeded that of our trifecta, even though the heavy favorite finished in first and every entrant in the race was included on the ticket!

While not every race has the same separation in pace and running styles across all of the entrants, consider using a power-box on TwinSpires the next time that you are looking to get some coverage in the exotics while still keeping the cost of a ticket to a manageable size.