12/10/2002 12:00AM

Forget it, Jake, it's Bangkok


BANGKOK, Thailand - The horses had reached the starting gate, about 15 minutes after first entering the track. They began loading and three minutes later they were all in line. It seemed odd that few people in the crowd of nearly 20,000 at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club had ventured toward the betting windows. But they knew the horses would not be coming out of the gate for another 15 minutes.

It's a good thing that the betting pools here don't close at zero minutes to post - the new policy at some American tracks - because the handle would drop by about 70 percent. Most Thai bettors do not rush to the windows to toss down their hard-earned baht until after the horses are all in the gate, with the tote board's minutes-to-post flashing "0" in bright, red lights seemingly forever.

Racing in Thailand appears to be from another era - a far cry from Asian racing superpowers Hong Kong and Japan. Depending on your temperament, the sport here is either refreshingly laid back or maddeningly disorganized.

In Bangkok, racing is held every Sunday, alternating between two tracks, the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and the Royal Turf Club. This past Sunday, racing was held at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, which has a golf course and cricket field in the infield, both of which were in full use while the races were being run.

Even though the track is nearly 1 1/8 miles in circumference, all 10 races were held at either 1,200 meters (six furlongs) or 1,300 meters (6 1/2 furlongs). All were on turf, on a left-handed course - with no banking on the turns - that seemed alarmingly narrow for the full fields of 15.

The horses are shipped in from out of town on the backs of what look like converted pickup trucks. They come barreling through the downtown streets, one horse to a truck, a handler at the horse's side, bridle and blinkers already affixed.

Betting is limited to win and place, place being the equivalent of show in the United States. That's it. There are no exotics. There is no offtrack or simulcast betting. Post times seem to be more of a good idea than a reality. On Sunday, the eighth race was supposed to go off at 4:20 p.m. The horses came out of the gate at exactly 5 p.m.

Information for handicappers is sparse. Programs are printed in both Thai and English. The English version is called Siam Racing Form, but it is no turf authority. The pedigree of each horse lists only his sire, and although there are a few familiar names - on Sunday, there were runners by Black Tie Affair, Crafty Prospector, Frankly Perfect, Houston, Saratoga Six, and Temperence Hill - there is no mention of either a dam or damsire.

The horse's names are largely in Thai, a few in English, and some are a combination. Each horse's age is listed by both year and month (such as 3 years, 10 months), apparently because of Thai superstition. All Thais know the day of the week and time of day they were born, so they can consult numerology charts. Those wanting to take an extra step beyond numerology at the track can visit an ontrack spirit house to try to whisk away bad luck.

Jockeys are listed by last name only. Trainers are not listed. Each horse's last six running lines are displayed, but their positions at intermediate calls are noted only if they were among the first five at that point.

The takeout rate was not published in the program, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. A little calculation, based on the final odds after one race, revealed it to be about 30 percent, an exorbitant rate for straight wagers.

No wonder the taxi driver who took a car full of racegoers to the track on Sunday shook his head and said "never" in Thai when asked if he went to the races. He did allow that he bet on Thai boxing - known as kick boxing in the United States - with the illegal bookmakers at those venues.

The track entrance was crowded with hundreds of motorcycles, including motorcycle taxis, which are a popular, yet dangerous, way of navigating Bangkok's congested streets.

The track is just about the only legal game in town. There are no casinos in Thailand, and the government-run lottery, which is held every two weeks, offers puny prize money. The races seemed to appeal to one group - men. There were few women at the track.

Admission to the track was 50 baht (about $1.20) - the same cost as a minimum bet - but a sympathetic racecourse official allowed the visitors to head to the turf club for about $12 each. It wasn't exactly Arlington Park. On the second of two floors, there was merely a veranda, with plastic tables and chairs. On a typically hot, humid afternoon, the only indoor seating, and - more importantly - the only place with air conditioning, was a member's-only equivalent of the director's room. No visitors. The biggest sales items were cold towels, which Thais draped across the back of their necks while handicapping.

Horses are grouped by divisions, similar to the system used by greyhound racing in the United States. As a result, many of the same horses run against each other each week. But that did not make handicapping easy. In fact, it seemed smarter to watch the tote board than try to decipher the past performances.

Racing in Thailand does not have a reputation for high integrity, perhaps because you can make more money gambling than trying to win prize money. Sunday's featured race was worth just $4,100 to the winner. And that race did nothing to alter the image of racing in Thailand.

Choke Sanun one week earlier had finished a distant fifth as the 2-1 favorite, 7 3/4 lengths behind one-two finishers Yord Ying, at 13-1, and Mah Hirun, 7-1.

This time, Yord Ying hovered at approximately 250-1 (odds are displayed up to 999-1). Mah Hirun was 175-1. Choke Sanun was even-money.

Choke Sanun galloped.