03/06/2003 1:00AM

Blind spots have got to vanish


ARCADIA, Calif. - When riders hit the ground and stay there, repercussions ensue. Hospitalizations and recriminations go hand in hand.

Disqualifications and suspensions are by-products of the drama, while finger-pointing becomes the pastime of choice.

The sobering cluster of accidents at Santa Anita last week had people drawing conclusions left and right. Was it the racetrack? Was it careless riding? Was it the alignment of Neptune and Mars?

Two of the falls, involving Laffit Pincay Jr. and Joe Steiner, were judged by the stewards to be pilot error. Tony Farina received a seven-day suspension in the Pincay case and Matt Garcia got 10 days for interfering with Steiner. Both Steiner and Pincay remain hospitalized.

David Flores was unceremoniously dumped while attempting to pull up a horse who had bowed a tendon. Victor Espinoza had two horses break down - one on the grass and one on the dirt - with Felipe Martinez hitting the deck as an innocent bystander in Espinoza's main-track crash. Their various injuries were relatively minor, although Espinoza has a right to wonder what he did to deserve such cosmic retribution.

When the incidents are considered individually, a definite pattern is difficult to perceive. Recent bad weather poses a challenge for any track superintendent, even the best, and Santa Anita employs two of the most diligent in the business - Steve Wood and Leif Dickinson.

At the end of the day, there remains the inescapable fact that race-riding is a difficult, dangerous business, and that all the safeguards in the world can never guarantee an afternoon without tragedy. That is why the stewards, racetrack managements and state racing commissions must continue to do everything in their power to protect the participants - both human and equine - through a system of pre- and post-race inspections, consistent rules of play, and comprehensive surveillance of every piece of action from start to finish.

Believe it or not, both the Pincay and Steiner accidents came agonizingly close to occurring at blind spots in the patrol camera network at Santa Anita. This is where the reader may pause and shake his head. Blind spots?

For the game to have any integrity at all, at least two views of any possible infraction are necessary. Without clear and complete pan shots from the side and "head-on" either from the front or back, there is no way to reconstruct an incident with any confidence. And without that confidence, stewards are at a disadvantage when it comes to inquiries, disqualifications, and subsequent suspensions.

"If Laffit had gone down a little bit earlier, we would have been out of luck," said senior steward Pete Pedersen. "We could use a couple more cameras."

The Pincay accident took place crossing the strip of dirt course during a 6 1/2-furlong hillside turf sprint, and there were good (though gruesome) views from both the front and grandstand side. The blind spot to which Pedersen referred is at the final arc of the left-hand hillside turn, when one camera says goodbye before the next one can pick up the action.

The blind spot in the Steiner crash is of a more recent vintage. When the video display board in the infield was erected in 1999, as part of a package of improvements made by the track's new owners at Magna Entertainment, it was a popular and artistic success. It was also too tall.

As a result, there is a patch of no-man's land midway down the backstretch that is obscured from the view of both the naked eye and the panning cameras situated high in the grandstand. Horses can take as many as seven to eight strides in this video limbo, viewed only by the head-on patrol camera that looks eastward down the backstretch from the point of the final turn.

When Steiner and his horse emerged from this brief "blackout" last week, they were already taking up and in the process of going down.

Fortunately, in this case, there were clear views from both front and side to judge the relative positions of Garcia and Steiner. Had the incident occurred mere seconds sooner, stewards would not have had a side view to complete their picture. They would have been helpless to take any action.

Racetracks will plead poverty when asked to install more video views, even though such a gesture would do nothing but good for horses, riders, stewards, and the protection of the betting fan. Fortunately, California Horse Racing Board chairman Roger Licht is one of those fans, and he has formed a committee of fellow commissioners to examine the issue.

"The committee will look at items that should be required of a racetrack in addition to the basics of a license application," Licht said. "To me, the value of a license to have a racetrack in California should require more than the bare basics.

"The issue of track cameras is specifically a concern. It's even gone to the extent that some of the craftier jockeys are aware of those spots and can take advantage of them."

Hopefully, the chairman can put California's racetracks out of the blind-spot business.