07/31/2002 12:00AM

Could be a no-win situation


DEL MAR, Calif. - The sporting public has a right to be confused. Racing is a game they would love to love, but the signals in return can be thoroughly mixed. Sometimes they are downright disheartening.

Consider these current events:

A New Jersey family planning a trip to Monmouth Park on Sunday to see Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem in the $1 million Haskell better have a backup strategy. In the past 10 days, he has been in the race, out of the race, and back in again. As this is written, War Emblem is aloft, heading eastward from Del Mar, and his people are intent on running. Still, it's only Wednesday.

The death of War Emblem's owner, Ahmed Salman, no doubt threw the stable into havoc. For this they can be cut some slack. The true problem lies with the choices. There are too many, with too many racetracks competing for the handful of bona fide box office draws. Over the next few months, a horse of War Emblem's appeal will be coveted by not only Monmouth, but also Del Mar, Saratoga, Arlington, and maybe even a few well-heeled county fairs. Let the bidding begin. . . .

In the case of Kona Gold, his appeal is mostly local, in spite of his Eclipse Award as champion sprinter of 2000. At heart, the old boy is a Southern California institution, as well as a Del Mar hero.

Kona Gold also has become the centerpiece of a political intrigue that rivals the Borgias at their diabolical best.

According to trainer and part-owner Bruce Headley, Kona Gold's entry for the Bing Crosby Handicap last Saturday at Del Mar was nothing more than a vengeful ruse. Headley was unhappy with the weight assignment of 124 pounds from Tom Robbins, Del Mar's racing secretary, so he dangled his star and then yanked him back, scratching Kona Gold the morning of the race.

"I wanted to torment the [racing secretary and his aides]," Headley said, using a term one might hear in an old Lenny Bruce routine. "And I would have waited longer to scratch, just to really get to them, but I didn't want to hurt the fans playing the pick six."

A noble gesture. But how about the fans who wanted to see Kona Gold? Blame this one on the archaic handicap system, which is at the root of the quarrel. The game can develop stars without assigning them arbitrary weights.

What happens, though, when those stars become too expensive? Black Ruby, the world's greatest racing mule, has appeared recently in Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. She is an icon in Nevada and on the northern California fair circuit, and she runs again on Sunday at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, for the richest mule purse ($12,500) of the season. Her fans will be out in force.

Because of the nature of the game, Black Ruby is both a draw and a drain. In the past, there have been massive bets placed on Black Ruby to place and show, resulting in payouts that exceed the net pools. That pitiful wailing you hear is track managements dipping into their own pockets to make up the minus pools.

This year, out of sensible self-defense, northern California fairs have been offering win, exacta, and trifecta betting only when Black Ruby runs. Last year, Del Mar eliminated the issue altogether by refusing to take bets on a Black Ruby race. On Sunday, it may happen again.

"We'll be sitting down to talk about it, but my read is that we're just not going to take wagering on the race at all," said Mike Ernst, Del Mar's chief financial officer.

Ernst cited the looming presence of a local plunger whose huge bets on "sure things" like Black Ruby have plagued the balance sheets. Del Mar is liable for its own minus pools no matter where the race in question is run.

"If I could, I'd hire a private jet for $3,000 and fly the guy to northern California and let him bet on her up there," Ernst said.

A minus win pool is mathematically possible, although highly unlikely.

When Black Ruby raced at Pleasanton on July 7, she won by a nose and paid a juicy $2.40. If Del Mar management declines to take win bets on Black Ruby, they will officially join the scorned management of Hialeah Park from the winter of 1966, when a non-wagering "Chicken" Flamingo Stakes was presented because of Buckpasser's presence in the field of nine. He won by a nose.

Meanwhile, in a corner of California wine country, the reason for all the hubbub lolled peacefully in her paddock, awaiting her short trip down the road to Santa Rosa for Sunday's race.

"It's unfortunate that it's happening," said Mary McPherson, who owns Black Ruby with her husband, Sonny. "I don't want all this to jeopardize mule purses and mule races. But is it going to be a trend? Are the mules too predictable?"

Imagine that - a racing animal too exquisitely consistent to let the public play. If Del Mar blinks again this weekend, there can be no other way to spin the tale. All it took was a kick from a mule to bring the Thoroughbred game to its knees.