01/05/2004 12:00AM

Azeri and Magna both on wrong trail

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NEW YORK - The last two weeks of the year in racing is a good time to take a break because there is usually nothing going on. Santa Anita gets under way the day after Christmas but hasn't quite hit stride as the premier race meeting that it is, while the nation's other top race meet, Gulfstream Park, doesn't open until after the new year begins.

The key word there is "usually," as in not this time, buddy. As some of us were catching a breather at the end of 2003, a couple of events occurred that merit discussion, even belatedly. One was the return to training of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri. The other was the decision by Magna Entertainment Corp. to stop offering free live video of races at Santa Anita and Gulfstream, which are both owned by Magna and which, as noted, just happen to be the best race meets in the nation from now until Keeneland opens in April.

The Azeri decision surprised me. Azeri has always been synonymous with judicious, if not ultra-conservative handling. Obviously, with a career mark of 14 victories and 2 seconds from 16 starts, Azeri benefited from that approach. And, if anyone had any doubt, it is clear now that trainer Laura de Seroux was the architect of that approach.

But before anyone jumps ugly on owner Michael Paulson for dumping de Seroux and moving Azeri, along with his other horses, over to D. Wayne Lukas, it is important to note that this isn't the cut-and-dried example of misguided greed that it might appear to be. For one, Paulson took great pains to make clear that for now, Azeri is only back in training, and whether she races again depends entirely on her health.At least part of Paulson's intentions are good: He expressed his belief that race horses like Azeri are for racing first, and then for breeding. Those who lament, or ridicule, premature retirements of the game's stars, such as Empire Maker last year, should think about that before meting out harsh judgment on Paulson.

Of course, there are differences. Empire Maker retired with an important chunk of his 3-year-old season still in front of him, and Azeri turned 6 on New Year's Day. But the biggest problem here is that Paulson doesn't seem to realize that Azeri was never quite as good as her adoring fans and her trophy case suggested. On a cold fall day in 2002 when a 43-1 shot named Volponi upset a slightly below par Breeders' Cup Classic, Azeri had the good timing to run the race of her life winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff. That victory did complete an 8-for-9 season, but it was more a confluence of events that resulted in the Horse of the Year title. Even many of those who voted for Azeri in 2002 have to admit she was an imperfect candidate. She never even raced against males, let alone beat them.

In her five starts in 2003, Azeri did not match that Horse of the Year-clinching BC Distaff performance, certainly not in a visual sense, absolutely not in terms of quality of company beaten, and not against the clock, either. So, even if Azeri did miraculously recover from the tendon issue that led to de Seroux's recommendation of retirement - if indeed that matter wasn't embellished to protect the reputation of a beloved animal in the first place - what can reasonably be expected from Azeri if she does race this year?

It's counter-intuitive to think she'll be better at age 6 than she was at 5. But if Azeri isn't better at 6 than at 5, she is going to be in trouble in all but the most cream puff of spots. And to run against cream puffs isn't why she's being brought back. Azeri would be coming back so she could race in the East, and in all the best races. The thing is, if she does, it probably won't be pretty.

As for Magna's decision to charge bettors for the live signal from such tracks as Santa Anita and Gulfstream, either by requiring them to acquire HorseRacing TV (which is operated by Magna), opening an XpressBet account (which is also operated by Magna), or paying a straight up monthly fee directly to Magna, it seems penny wise and pound foolish.

Magna may be within its rights in wanting to make every nickel it can off of the video signals from its tracks, but who benefits if no one can see the signal? HRTV doesn't have a fraction of the exposure that is enjoyed by TVG, which is available nationally on the country's two leading satellite providers, DIRECTV and the Dish Network, as well as a few cable systems.

With HRTV in competition with TVG, Magna does not make the Santa Anita or Gulfstream signals available to TVG. What benefit is there from squeezing another dollar out of a betting public already abused by high takeouts by making them pay to watch races they may be interested in betting on? Isn't supporting a corporation's product at the betting windows enough?

If Magna thinks that restricting the television feeds from its tracks might actually have a backlash effect and cause a bump in track attendance, good luck. Despite Magna's best efforts, it can't turn the clock back to 1950. The point-of-sale in racing has changed, forever. People want to bet the way it is most convenient, and if that means in their underwear in their living rooms, so be it.

If Magna chooses to make it inconvenient to bet on its races, and let's face it, no one wants to bet on races they can't watch, Magna should realize that even at this time of year, there are plenty of other signals to wager on, and without aggravation.