09/08/2007 3:32PM

Funny Money


TORONTO--The headline doesn't mean I'm being an ugly American mocking the unfamiliar. Canadian currency is much prettier than our own, not to mention being worth 95 cents on the U.S. dollar these days. But the mutuel clerk at Woodbine looked at me like I was a space alien today when I played the first race, not because I called my best "exactas" rather than "exactors" but because I tried to pay with a crisp American Franklin.

"Oh no, no, no," she said sadly. "You needed to go over to that bank of windows over there and change the currency. I punched your tickets in Canadian and if I take that you'll lose the 3 percent premium."

Fortunately for the international currency markets, my two $50 (Can) exactas ran 1-4 and 1-5 so I guess she made out with an extra $3. I guess I should have remembered that the last time I made a cash bet at Woodbine was during the 1996 Breeders' Cup, when exceptions were made to accomodate the influx of Americans but you still had to specify which currency you were betting with before the clerk started punching your tickets. (I had been back to Woodbine a few times since but bet through my NYRA account via cell phone. This year, my cell phone also seems to have been relegated to space-alien status after crossing international borders, though that may have something to do with its own vintage: It's a 1997. At the time, a brand new Motorola Star-Tac seemed pretty cool.)

If the last time you were at Woodbine was 1996, you'd barely recognize the place. The facility was entirely rebuilt for the advent of slots, and this is the place that American track executives should visit to see a truly fair and complementary integration of slots and racing. Unlike the tawdry racinos that have shoved any evidence of racing (and its customers) out the back door, Woodbine has used slots money to transform itself into a sparkling racing facility with superior sightlines, seating and simulcasting areas. You can spend a day at the races amid pretty lush racing amentities without hearing a single buzzer or bell from the slot rooms tucked into other floors. But the concealed bandits are funding the racing program nicely: A N3x turf-sprint allowance today carried a $71,300 (Can) purse, which translated to a healthy $68,372 in U.S. funds.

One weird thing on the purse front: When I began handicapping that first race last night, I thought there had been some drastic purse reduction I hadn't heard about: Some of the maiden fillies in the race had been running in MdSpWt67k races here lately but today's race was only a MdSpWt30k. Were half the slot machines broken? No, it turns out Woodbine has been running what are informally called "A" ($60k+)and "B" ($30k) MdSpWt races, the latter being for owners who don't think they're competitive against the top maidens but still don't want to risk losing their horses for a tag by putting them in what is usually the only alternative, maiden claimers. It's sort of an intersting idea, with a number of handicapping wrinkles: Is a first-time starter in a "B" MdSpWt by definition probably not much horse, or are the owners trading a bigger purse for victory and maybe a winning bet? Does a horse "dropping" from an A to a B MdSpWt being deliberately lowered in class or maybe did the A race not fill?

---When I finally got back to a laptop to make some (U.S.) bets through my NYRA Rewards online account, I noticed a couple of nice upgrades to the software. Still no dime supers or online-funding mechanisms, but at least you can now review your tickets for the day instead of hoping you didn't leave out a key combo or wondering why your balance is $16 higher or lower than you thought it should be. That option is now on the "My Account" tab, as is one to set your default bet amount at $1 rather than $2. Previously it always defaulted to $2, incredibly annoying to change each time you made yet another $1 partwheel.