01/07/2008 1:00AM

Consider putting a lid on it


NEW YORK - An Internet search for "domed stadiums in the National Football League" turned up a few interesting tidbits. The first such NFL stadium was the Astrodome in Houston, planning for which actually began in the mid-1950s in an effort to lure a Major League Baseball team to that city. The effort paid off, as the Houston Astros eventually played in the Astrodome, as did, of course, the NFL's Houston Oilers.

There have been eight other domed stadiums in the NFL, seven of which are still used. There have been 12 Super Bowls played in domed stadiums, and it is interesting to note that 10 of them were in what would be considered warm-weather sites: New Orleans, Houston, and Atlanta. It is also worth noting that the technology of domed NFL stadiums had advanced to the point that since Reliant Stadium in Houston opened in 2002, all of the games played there have been played on natural grass.

In fact, the technology of domed stadiums has progressed to the point that six of them currently in use in Major League Baseball feature retractable roofs, so that when the weather is favorable, games can also be played outdoors.

You might ask, what does this have to do with horse racing, and why am I wasting my time with such stuff? Well, it is all because of what happened this past weekend. Rain wreaked havoc on Santa Anita's Cushion Track surface, forcing the cancellation of Saturday's and Sunday's races and the rescheduling of the three graded stakes races that were to be run over those two days. Rain also had its way Saturday at Gulfstream Park, where the results of two graded stakes were rendered inconclusive because of sloppy conditions. It is at times like this, or when the heat index at Saratoga is 110 degrees, or on the two Breeders' Cup days last October, that I wonder:

Why hasn't there been some serious thought given to a domed racetrack?

My memory on this one is shaky, but I seem to recall in the early 1970s some talk about a domed track either in Colorado or Nevada. Obviously, that went nowhere. Now, go ahead and Google "domed Thoroughbred tracks," and you won't come up with one single item that addresses the topic.

Okay, I might be dreaming here. And right away, folks might dismiss the thought of a domed racetrack as ridiculous, saying a domed baseball stadium, or one with a retractable roof, is one thing, but a domed racetrack would have to be too big for it to be feasible. Well, you should know that in the last few years, there have been two very serious proposals for domed car racing tracks, one in Michigan, and another in Connecticut, which would be a Nascar track. Those domes would certainly have to be much bigger than one that would house a Thoroughbred track, not only because of the track layout, but also to accommodate the huge numbers of people who attend big race car events. And a domed Thoroughbred track wouldn't have to deal with the enormous obstacle of removing car exhaust from the air.

Thinking about it some more, it surprises me that an industry such as ours that has embraced an "outside-the-box" concept like synthetic racing surfaces wouldn't openly consider the notion of a domed track, or even better, a track with a retractable roof. Then again, it's surprising the industry has fallen so in love with synthetic surfaces, given their disastrous beginnings in this country.

Old Tropical Park in Florida introduced a synthetic surface called the Tartan Track in the late 1960s as an adjunct to its conventional dirt track. Everyone - fans, horsemen, everyone - hated it. If even only one race a day was run on Tartan, it was run for the absolute cheapest horses on the grounds, because that's the only type of horse horsemen were willing to risk on it. Calder Race Course also had the Tartan Track, but it wasn't long before it was replaced by conventional dirt. And when Remington Park opened in 1988, it opened with a synthetic surface called Equitrack, which was gone by 1991 in favor of conventional dirt.

Certainly, synthetic track technology is infinitely better now than it was back then, notwithstanding the unfortunate mess going on right now at Santa Anita. But even when everything is perfect with synthetic surfaces, there are still a lot of people, both bettors and horsemen alike, who don't like it. There are big bettors who won't touch a race run on a synthetic track. And there were horsemen last summer quite dissatisfied with the way Del Mar's new Polytrack affected how races were run, and they expressed their displeasure either by removing horses from the grounds or by starting fewer horses than they otherwise would have.

One thing bettors and horsemen do agree on is that they much prefer to participate when the track is fast and the turf is firm. In other words, both crave racing conditions that are consistent and predictable. That's not an unreasonable request, but Mother Nature won't always cooperate and allow this to happen. How can racing be conducted in ideal conditions, day in, day out, with no exceptions?

Why, in a dome, of course.