08/09/2006 11:00PM

Coupling rules are too tangled


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - What happened to the horseplayers who bet on Carnera in the seventh race at Saratoga last Saturday may have been one of the most perverse outcomes in the annals of parimutuel wagering.

Carnera was the second choice in the A in Sociology Stakes for 3-year-olds, and those who bet on him should have been rewarded when he won a cleanly run race by a length. There was no inquiry or disqualification, Carnera had his picture taken in the winner's circle, and the race was quickly declared official. If you bet on him, however, depending on which pool you played, you got only a refund, a consolation or, in the case of those who invested nearly $700,000 in the pick four and pick six pools, you simply lost your money outright.

How can you bet on Carnera, watch him win, and then have the track take away your money and give it to the people who bet on the second-place finisher? The problem was that Carnera was running for "purse money only," due to a well-intentioned but archaic and poorly implemented rule regarding coupled entries.

Carnera was coupled in the betting with Changing Weather, a hopeless stablemate who had never even run on the grass and would have been 30-1 on his own. No one who was betting Carnera down to 5-2 was doing so because you were getting two horses for the price of one. But when Changing Weather was scratched a few minutes before post time, the rules called for Carnera to run for purse only. People who made straight bets on him or played intrarace exotics got refunds, pick three bettors already alive got consolations, but pick four and pick six players were switched to the post-time favorite, Yankee Master. Their money went up in smoke when Yankee Master ran third rather than first or second.

The rule was designed to protect bettors in a case where, for example, Carnera rather than Changing Weather had been the late scratch. People would have screamed even louder had they been stuck with tickets on the no-chance entrymate at 5-2. There's no way around enforcing it both ways unless you really want the stewards playing handicapper and deciding which half of an entry is the one people are really betting on.

The completely unfair part of the rule was that pick four bettors were shifted to the post-time favorite rather than being given a refund, given that the sequence was only starting with this race. There's a case to be made for a switch to a favorite once one or more races in the sequence have been run, but in the first leg, pick four bettors should simply be given their money back, just the way that win bettors were. For the track to do otherwise, just to keep from losing their commission on the handle, borders on fraud. It's an easy rule change that should be in place tomorrow, but given the past performances of the regulatory bodies will probably take more like six months.

The whole situation raises a broader question of what racing should do about coupled entries in general, in an age when three developments have made it a cloudy and contentious issue: the concentration of stakes horses among a small number of trainers; decreasing field sizes throughout racing; and the rising popularity of multirace wagers, which complicate the late scratch of part of an entry.

It used to be that if horses had the same owner or trainer, they were coupled to protect the public from an inside scheme to win with the longer price, or at least avoid the appearance of such impropriety even if such an outcome happened naturally. As field sizes have come down and megastables have blossomed, however, one state after another has changed its rules to allow horses with the same trainer but different owners to run uncoupled, in order to increase handle by creating more separate betting interests.

This can become confusing and is often illogical. Carnera and Changing Weather have different trainers but were coupled because they have the same owner. A week earlier, Todd Pletcher saddled three of the six starters in the Grade 1 Go for Wand Stakes but they ran as separate betting interests because his fillies had three different owners. That distinction is a thin one, and still another set of rules would have applied had it been an allowance or claiming race because of the nutty institutionalized premise that people are somehow less likely to cheat or collude in races with bigger purses.

Given the complete lack of consistency in the coupling rules between different states, race types, and bet types, the best solution may be the simplest one: Uncouple everything all the time. Occasionally a Changing Weather will win at 30-1 while a Carnera is up the track at 5-2 and some customers will howl - but not as loudly as when they bet on the right horse, win the race, and lose their money.