11/12/2001 12:00AM

Autumnal racing reflections


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is no one watching. And why should they be? It's November. There has been racing all year long. There is nothing left to decide. In the parlance of the pro golf tour, this is the "silly season," when positive results count for little beyond enriching a handful of bank accounts.

As for the Eclipse Awards, pity the poor, deluded souls who still think they have a chance at a trophy with some sort of last-minute heroics. All the bases have been covered. The verdicts are in. Once the Breeders' Cup races are official and all the tests clear, any evidence offered is rejected with barely a second look.

There is no one in the stands. They are betting, to be sure, far removed from the horses, but there is no interest in the sport, only in the results. Thank goodness for the superfecta. At least the fourth-best horse gets an occasional shout.

There was a free general admission gate for Hollywood Park's opening day last week. The response was a disheartening 5,602. This was very much in line, however, with modern November numbers: Opening day at Aqueduct - 3,536. A Wednesday at Delaware Park - 1,945. There were 4,583 rattling around cavernous Churchill Downs on a recent Thursday afternoon, 1,518 at Louisiana Downs on a Friday, and 5,781 at Meadowlands on a mild Saturday night, when the last race left the gate at a quarter past 11.

This is lousy showbiz, and counterproductive to the best efforts of a business that does step up to put a good foot forward from time to time. What do we tell customers, though, who might be hooked by a Breeders' Cup or a Cal Cup or a Maryland Million, and leave the place hungry for more? Sorry, folks, the next few weeks are just horses going in circles. Nothing special. And yes, there is an admission charge.

The only decent answer is to scale back. If Major League Baseball can do it, certainly horse racing can bite the bullet. Scaling back can mean a reduction of races. It can also mean a reduction of dates. Don't look for either to happen this century. The three large companies who control the bulk of the nation's pari-mutuel handle (Churchill, Magna, New York Racing Association) require constant churn. Every day without action is a day in the red.

The answer, therefore, is in the size of the theater. Racing's great arenas have become hollow embarrassments. There are dark corners of Santa Anita, Hollywood, Belmont, and Aqueduct that have been bereft of human warmth for months. No, years.

And yet, these deserted barns survive, on the chance that they might host a Breeders' Cup, or because they are too expensive to tear down, or because there might be the prospect of a Triple Crown winner. They have become huge stadiums built for a single day. The rest of the time they play host to the same 3,000 loyal fans, over and over and over. They should all have personalized parking places.

Of the three biggest racing companies, only Magna has appeared to recognize the folly of maintaining such huge facilities in the face of today's economic realities. Magna, owner of massive Santa Anita, has proposed to build a track near the northern California town of Dixon (pop. 16,103), just west of Sacramento. Whether or not it gets built, the design should serve as the model for all racetracks to come.

The villa-style plan calls for three levels, with 5,000 seats inside, 1,600 outside. Sounds about right for any track anywhere in North America these days. The new Fair Grounds in New Orleans was built along similar lines, as was Lone Star Park near Dallas. In such an environment, a crowd of 7,500 feels vibrant, intimate, and well served.

Unfortunately, Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Hollywood Park and Calder, will be spending most of its improvement capital on its home track in Louisville, turning Churchill Downs itself into an updated version of its rambling immensity. Downsizing at Hollywood will be a long way off.

In the meantime, the people running the Hollywood Park operation are doing their best to make it a good day for whoever shows up. There were 7,522 spread around the big house on Sunday. That number represented about 242 fans for each member of the 31-piece Morningside High School band, on hand in resplendent red and white as part of a special Veterans Day celebration.

After playing the national anthem, the band assembled in the paddock, where steward Dave Samuel delicately reminded them to refrain from playing while the horses circled for the first. It was good advice. The drummers seemed edgy. And since there were only five horses in the race, you could pretty much hear a pin drop. Still, it was a strange sight - a marching band leaning on the rails, all dressed up with no place to blow.

"How about 'La Bamba?' " requested Paco Gonzalez as he followed his maiden, First Mesa, out of the ring.

And why not? There were only a few of us listening.