01/07/2008 12:00AM

The future can be now


As we enter 2008, horseplayers have a right to wonder what direction the game is headed and what is being done to solve issues, big and small, old and new.

For instance:

While professional baseball is dealing with former senator George Mitchell's official report "on the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs," horse racing officials have begun to step up the plate to ban steroid use in horse racing. In particular, several major breeding states have adopted rules banning anabolic steroid and growth hormones for horses designated to be sold at public auction. Likewise, a growing number of states have vowed to implement similar rules against these drugs for racing purposes. These are encouraging signs, but horseplayers can only hope that such bans will be endorsed - and strictly enforced - in every racing state.

Just as pro baseball is seeking to regain its lost credibility through public exposure of blatant steroid use, many horseplayers believe the time has come for racing commissions to crack down hard on trainers and veterinarians seeking a competitive edge through illegal substances.

"It's a matter of having faith in the fairness of the game," said professional horseplayer Bill Stevenson of Carson City, Nev. "For way too long we've waited for racing officials to deal with this problem. It's definitely hurt the sport as much as baseball, maybe more."

Horseplayers throughout the country also are being affected by what is going on at Santa Anita this winter.

The game is hard enough without having to deal with a troublesome synthetic track that drained so poorly that Santa Anita officials had to cancel racing on the first weekend of 2008.

Even if we assume that Cushion Track engineers will solve some of Santa Anita's drainage problems, will the repaired surface play fairly? Will it be a very fast track? Will it be converted into a new blend of dirt and synthetic materials? Or, will it require so much aggressive maintenance that it will play differently one day to the next, or one race to the next?

Said Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles: "Frankly, we're troubled by these unexpected problems, and we're doing the best we can to solve them. But until we get it fixed, I'm not sure what kind of track we're going to have. We might have to treat it as if it were dirt."

The desire to improve racehorse safety was the driving motive for the synthetic track experiment, but horseplayers were kept out of the loop while different synthetic tracks were introduced in varying climates almost all at once. Sadly, the multiple synthetic track experiments might have benefited from a few test runs on select training tracks. It is clear now that the rush to implement them has led to problems at Woodbine, Turfway Park, Keeneland, Del Mar, and now Santa Anita.

Strictly from a player's perspective, the switch to synthetics also has forced many sharp handicappers to discard successful approaches in order to accent a few horses here and there who clearly conform to the nuances of each different synthetic track.

At Keeneland, we now know that stretch-runners will win a high proportion of route races where they used to be won by front-runners on the glib Keeneland dirt tracks. At Del Mar, some needed adjustments will be made to the extremely slow Polytrack surface we saw in 2007, and form might be difficult to decipher. Yet we still should expect many horses gaining conditioning after running over the slowest synthetic track in America.

But how should we deal with Santa Anita?

Be patient. Skip a week or so to regain equilibrium. Watch trends as they unfold. Among many issues, horsemen and horseplayers will have to guess to what extent form may be adversely affected by lost training days and missed racing assignments. It also will make sense to remain alert for trainers and jockeys who come out firing with sharp horses on the repaired surface. Aside from compensatory training activity, some horsemen and jockeys inevitably demonstrate an uncanny ability to deal with new racing conditions.

In New York, the standing of the New York Racing Association is scheduled to be resolved by Jan. 23. But horseplayers can only hope that the expected new lease on life accompanied by slot machines headed for Aqueduct will bring stability to the franchise, improvements to the facilities, and a few minor but overdue changes to the daily flow of handicapping information.

For example, would it be so hard for the NYRA to move up scratch time from 11 a.m. on race day? This is a frequent complaint heard in many simulcast centers and from Aqueduct regulars.

Most tracks in other states scratch horses in two stages, the day before and at 9 or 10 a.m. on race day. This method permits overnight handicapping with minor adjustments on race day, while the New York approach limits what one may do until all scratches are known, only a few hours before post time.

New York similarly should consider a method employed by a few other jurisdictions for designating post positions for "main-track-only" horses entered in turf races.

Instead of unilaterally assigning main-track horses the extreme outside posts, it would be just as efficient to place them in the body of the race with their main-track designations. This change would be fairer to horses when the track is playing extremely favorably to the middle lanes as it dries out, or when it is a rail-runner's paradise. Giving main-track-only horses random access to different running lane biases via the post position draw is an important aspect of this desirable change.

Likewise, wouldn't it be an easy matter for New York (and other districts) to supply blinker information for first-time starters in the track program and past performances. As it stands now, the only way to know when a first-time starter is going to be wearing blinkers is to watch the post parade or be an insider connected to the stable. Frankly, there is no plausible excuse for failing to provide this information to the betting public. In every state, blinker information must be included when entries are filed with the racing office.

As far as the impact of slots on New York horseplayers, many hope that NYRA will become the first racing organization in America to provide real incentives for regular slot-players to bet on horses. A few free bets and/or other racing materials just might increase the fan base, which regular horseplayers would love to see as much as track management

Also, many horseplayers hope that slots will not only lead to increases in purses and substantial grandstand improvements, but also creatively provide a way to lower the parimutuel takeout. Down to the very last person who plays this game regularly, slots are not seen as a way for tracks to line their pockets, but as a way to improve facilities and lower the cost of making bets. Entering this new year, horseplayers cannot be blamed for clinging to that hope.