07/24/2003 11:00PM

Champion's vanishing casts pall

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The same week that racing should be in its full glory with the openings of Del Mar, Saratoga, and "Seabiscuit," the industry has been embarrassed by the presumed death and possible slaughter of the 1987 Horse of the Year.

Ferdinand, who won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic, was a failure as a stallion at Claiborne Farm and sold to Japan's Arrow Stud in 1994, where he did not fare much better. Bred to 78 mares his first year overseas, he was bred to only two by 2002, and his fate after that breeding season is unclear.

There is no evidence yet that Ferdinand was slaughtered other than the speculation of a freelance writer for a trade magazine, who reported that his last known owner, a Japanese horse dealer, was implying as much when he said Ferdinand "was disposed of" in 2002. It is certainly a possibility, though it seems strange that the enterprising dealer would not have solicited a more generous offer in America than whatever Japanese pet-food manufacturers are paying these days.

The story has prompted sadness and anger in American breeding and racing circles, some of it constructive, some of it thoroughly misplaced.

On the silver-lining side, the story will probably lead to a new clause in sales contracts of prominent American horses to overseas interests, requiring that the original owners must be contacted before the horse is resold or otherwise "disposed of." Spokesmen for both Claiborne and the Howard Keck family, which raced Ferdinand, say they would have paid whatever was needed to bring the horse back here for a dignified and well-deserved retirement.

What is undeserved is the anger that has been directed at the Japanese Thoroughbred industry. Several letters sent to Daily Racing Form and various Internet postings have called for economic sanctions against Japanese breeders while characterizing Japanese horsemen as heartless killers.

The neglect of horses who have outlived their economic usefulness is a universal rather than cultural phenomenon, as prevalent in the United States as anywhere else. By every indication, the Japanese are every bit as humane and sentimental about racehorses as Americans, who slaughter many more racehorses each year.

In addition to encouraging buy-back provisions in sales contracts, the incident should give needed urgency and publicity both to national legislative efforts to outlaw horse slaughter and to the worthy efforts of rescue and adoption groups. It also seems a good time for the industry to make sure that there are no other Ferdinand situations out there waiting to happen. Not every horse can be saved this year, or perhaps ever, but at the very least it seems as though it should be someone's task at either Churchill Downs or the Breeders' Cup to make sure there are no more Derby or Classic winners out there nearing a similar fate.

Trouble seeing the future

A perusal of four New York newspapers Friday morning - the Times, Daily News, Post, and Saratogian - revealed a heartening 42 articles about horse racing and a discouraging zero mentions of the start of Breeders' Cup futures wagering. These interesting and innovative bets have been slow to catch on primarily because of a lack of publicity and support from the major tracks that stand to benefit the most from them.

Futures wagers, far more popular overseas, where bookmakers promote them, should be viewed by tracks as much more than an opportunity to take commissions from a few extra betting pools. Properly presented and aggressively promoted, they can entice fans into following stakes racing around the country more closely, and build even greater interest and handle on Breeders' Cup Day. In time, they could become significant pools, especially when the tote companies stop pretending they can't rewrite software to handle more than 24 betting interests.

Instead, they are only reluctantly taken at all by most tracks and given less visibility than the early double at the worst simulcast signal on the menu. Few tracks offer dedicated monitors showing updated odds or make reminder announcements that the bets are available. Even players who want to jump into the pools are discouraged by the difficulty in finding current information. Several in major racing centers say they have tried to make futures bets and been met with blank stares from mutuels clerks who say they don't think the bets are available.

One of these days, an enlightened track will give out a free $2 Breeders' Cup Classic futures bet instead of a hideous ceramic mug as a summer Sunday promotion. The thousands of racegoers who would make their first futures bet are sure to make others, providing dividends to the industry long after the extra admissions dollars from spinners collecting coffee mugs are gone.