01/18/2007 1:00AM

Exotics rule makeover long overdue

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NEW YORK - No one was going to get rich playing the trifecta in the first race at Aqueduct last Monday, a six-horse affair that ended in a dead heat between the 9-10 favorite and an 8-1 shot. There's no good reason, however, that there was no payoff at all and that the entire pool had to be refunded because of a silly and antiquated rule.

The trifecta was cancelled because a 1-for-37 mare named Meadow Belle, the slightly more hopeless half of a two-horse entry, was scratched at the gate. Her entrymate, Shining Wood, was permitted to run but for purse money only, a good rule that kept bettors from being stuck with the half of the entry they perhaps didn't like or want. Shining Wood ran last in the field of six.

The scratch of Meadow Belle, however, left only five betting interests in the race, so under New York rules, the trifecta had to be cancelled and all bets refunded. Both that rule, and its application in a situation like this, are patently absurd.

The requirement for a minimum number of starters for intrarace exotic bets stems from the early 1980's, when state investigators tried to prove that prominent jockeys had held back favorites in ninth-race trifectas at New York tracks in the 1970's. They never nailed their primary targets but felt they had to do something to appear to bolster integrity, so they decided to mandate a minimum number of starters in trifecta races.

The thinking seems to have been that it would be too easy to fix a five-horse trifecta since you only had to stiff two horses to lock up the winning box, whereas stiffing three was beyond the fixers' capabilities, and forcing them to box four unstiffed horses would sufficiently reduce their profit margin to keep the game pure.

The whole idea is simply ridiculous, even more so when you consider how it played out in Monday's first at Aqueduct. The drop in the number of betting interests from six to five occurred one minute before post time, which even for a really nimble race fixer would seem to pose serious obstacles to contacting underworld kingpins, recruiting and bribing two jockeys, and placing untraceable bets crushing the trifecta box of the remaining three betting interests.

The cherry on this absurdist sundae is that the rule applied only because this was a claiming race. An hour later, there was a trifecta on a five-horse field, but because that was a statebred N1X allowance instead of an open claimer for $30,000 fillies like the first, the public was supposed to be safe from larceny.

There are minimum-starter rules for every type of bet, almost all of them unnecessary and illogical, stemming from this 25-year-old piece of investigatory face-saving. Several were on display on Monday's entry-challenged Aqueduct card. There was no superfecta wagering all day until the nine-horse finale because other fields scratched down to six or seven, and there was no exacta on the three-horse Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. Is there a regulator who actually believes that permitting exactas on that race would have led some criminal mastermind to try to get one of the three starters stiffed so he could have pounded the other two runners back and forth in the exacta?

There are only two legitimate instances when an exotic should be cancelled due to field size. You wouldn't have an exacta in a match race because it is nothing but a win bet at a higher takeout, and you wouldn't have a trifecta in a three-horse field because it is nothing but an exacta at a higher takeout (not that this stopped Gulfstream from conducting such a bet several years ago.). Otherwise, what's wrong with running pools and letting customers bet on the six possible exactas in a three-horse race, the 60 possible trifectas in a five-horse field, or the 360 possible superfectas in a six-horse race?

The rules not only frustrate patrons but also deprive the state, tracks, and purses of needed revenue. They have seriously stymied superfecta betting in New York (as has the New York Racing Association's stubborn and out-of-step refusal to offer dime superfectas), because patrons never know which races offer the bet. The tracks designate different races each day as superfecta events, then frequently have to cancel the pools after late scratches.

At some point in the messy battle over who will own and run New York's tracks after this year, the entire racing rulebook is going to need to be rewritten before anyone agrees to operate the franchise. There is no need to wait that long, however, to jettison egregious regulations like this one. The State Racing and Wagering Board could sit down with the betting and simulcasting experts from the state's tracks and clean up these wagering rules to everyone's satisfaction in a single afternoon. Why not just do it?