08/17/2003 11:00PM

Bettors get left in the dark


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Maybe the lights should have stayed off for another couple of days. This past weekend at Saratoga was a disappointment all around, whether live, by simulcast, or among the industry leaders who gathered here for the annual Jockey Club Round Table.

On the racetrack, Saturday's Alabama was a complete bust unless you own or bet on Island Fashion, who scored at $18.60 while favorites Spoken Fur and Bird Town barely showed up. Spoken Fur, eligible for a $2 million bonus that failed to ignite much interest from either horsemen or the public, was a distant third, while Bird Town stopped badly and beat just one filly. The race was hardly an aesthetic masterpiece. Island Fashion took the lead from the sprinter Awesome Humor after a half-mile and ran her final quarter-mile in over 27 seconds with everyone backing up behind her.

Island Fashion's six-length triumph over Awesome Humor was a virtual rerun of the July 19 Delaware Oaks, where she beat Awesome Humor by 6 1/2. She needs to do something more to prove she's the best of her division, but she has a unique rŽsumŽ: Six career starts, all this year at 3, over six far-flung tracks - Turf Paradise, Santa Anita, Sunland Park, Churchill Downs, Delaware, and now Saratoga.

About an hour after the Alabama, simulcast bettors and ESPN viewers watched the Arlington Million end with a terrifying spill and an unpopular disqualification, which may have been technically correct but did not serve either sporting or wagering justice. Storming Home was clearly best and was going to win whether or not he veered out in the shadow of the wire, unseating Gary Stevens in an accident that fortunately turned out to have looked worse than it was.

This led to the strange spectacle of Stevens being carried off the track on a stretcher to a chorus of cheers that turned to boos when the stewards placed Storming Home fourth for interfering with the dead-heated third-place finishers. That made a winner of Sulamani, who simply wasn't good enough to catch Storming Home, and made losers of those bettors who backed the right horse.

The situation was all the more unfortunate because there's a good argument that Storming Home and Sulamani should have been coupled, which would have made the disqualification parimutuelly irrelevant beyond the place and show payoffs. Storming Home races for Sheikh Maktoum, and Sulamani carries the colors of the same family's Godolphin Racing. While Maktoum horses are routinely uncoupled in Europe, where they dominate stakes entries, American families are not allowed to uncouple their horses by assigning them to different racing entities.

Lots of back-patting, little detail

Sunday's Round Table was as unsatisfying as the Alabama and the Million in its own way. Rudolph Giuliani was the featured speaker, but instead of providing any detail of what his Giuliani Partners had actually done with the millions paid by the industry for a serious study of parimutuel security and technology, Giuliani made a few genial remarks and repeatedly complimented those paying his fee for their outstanding crisis-management job on the Breeders' Cup pick-six scandal. Giuliani even told the delighted pooh-bahs that they had handled the situation so well that he was going to write about them in his next book.

The consolidated recommendations of Giuliani's firm and an industry task force boil down to a call for better technology, better security, and the establishment of a National Office of Wagering Security, though no one seems to have any idea of who will pay for all that. If the industry got anything approaching its money's worth for this exercise in the obvious, it was from whatever political clout Giuliani invoked to keep federal regulators from taking an interest in the matter.

What was most provocative about the presentation was what was unsaid about the future of the existing tote companies. They were not mentioned all morning, and their officials were not invited to speak. The presentation on wagering security and technology was bifurcated by a lengthy and seemingly out-of-place infomercial about The Jockey Club's new racing-office software, the implication being that perhaps the industry itself is getting sophisticated enough technologically that it could do a better job of handling bets than the current outside vendors.

That would be a more interesting outcome to the entire pick-six scandal than anything in Giuliani's report or even his next book.