06/02/2003 11:00PM

Forget science: Send in the slots


TUCSON, Ariz. - It remains to be seen if Dynever or Empire Maker or anyone else can run with Funny Cide, but one thing is certain: The only equine that could compete with him for media space in recent days was a jackass.

Idaho Gem, the test-tube full brother of the famous racing mule Taz, was created in a laboratory by scientists from the University of Idaho and Utah State and got his picture and almost half a page in The New York Times last week while Dynever was getting short shrift. The man-made mule also was covered heavily by media from coast to coast.

Racing yawned, and rightly so. Science still is a long way from cloning racehorses, even though they were talking about it after Idaho Gem. As one of the leading experts on horse genetics, Dr. Ernest Bailey of the University of Kentucky, pointed out, "If you had a race with 10 Secretariats, they wouldn't cross the finish line at the same time."

The Jockey Club, which doesn't allow artificial insemination, sniffed and paid no heed to the idea of test-tube Secretariats.

Donald W. Jacklin, the Idaho businessman who owns Taz, may have spent $400,000 to finance the cloning experiment, but no one is going to be paying that kind of money for carbon copies of a racehorse. Dolly the sheep, who started this whole thing just a few years ago, already is dead and gone, and there are too many problems with other animal clones that have been created to start thinking or worrying about cloned racehorses, with all the perils and risks and failings and shortcomings the real things display.

Fancying full brothers and sisters has spelled financial ruin for countless owners. Equine siblings - like their human counterparts - display vastly different conduct, temperament, and degrees of ability.

The articles about Idaho Gem, touching on what the practical applications of cloning might be, talked about the possibility of repopulating endangered species like the wild Przewalski horses of Mongolia.

How about repopulating endangered species like racetracks?

While the equine reproduction specialists were talking about Taz and his test-tube brother, racetrack specialists at Magna Entertainment were talking about closing Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

Unless the track got slots, they said, it too was an endangered species.

This represented a sharp turn for Magna, which has built its racetrack expansion on the concept of entertainment centers. The Magna creed has been that if slots came, fine, but the tracks could survive on their own.

That is becoming an increasingly dubious theory.

From New York to New Orleans, it is becoming increasingly apparent that North American racetracks need the support of alternative gaming. Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind., would be hard pressed to operate without its subsidy from Indiana's gambling riverboats, and the same is true of its nearby neighbor, Indiana Downs, which closed its inaugural Thoroughbred meeting last week and embarked on its first full harness meeting this week. Like Delaware Park and Dover Downs and Delta Downs and Wheeling Downs, like Prairie Meadows and Mountaineer Park and 15 tracks in Ontario, it has taken gambling attractions other than racing to succeed.

For those not yet blessed with slots - or cursed with them, as some believe - simulcasting is keeping the ship sailing. Indiana Downs's inaugural Thoroughbred figures showed a nightly average handle of $295,083, with $61,540 of that bet on track. Of the $8.8 million bet during the meeting, $1.8 million was bet on track. Those are not unusual numbers these days.

While the Fair Grounds's ability to sustain purses in Louisiana has been under pressure, Delta Downs's daily purses have risen from $40,000 to $240,000. New Orleans voters will decide next fall if the Fair Grounds is to be the only track in Louisiana without slots. If that's their decision, it is not a pretty prospect for betting in the bayou.

Illinois and Maryland and Texas have lost out on track slots this year. Pennsylvania is doubtful. New Jersey is unlikely, and the state has put two of the nation's biggest racetracks on the market. Ohio is likely to be at the mercy of voters in November. In New Mexico, four rivals, three of them experienced track operators, are battling to build a racino in Hobbs on the Texas border.

If you're going to clone things in racing, boys, you better leave the mules alone and work on Woodbine. That's the model that needs replication.