11/27/2002 1:00AM

Gate scratch has bettors hot


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The new "zero minute" policy recently implemented at Churchill Downs had bettors upset Tuesday when the late scratch of a horse who would have been the post-time favorite in the sixth race left bettors unable to obtain refunds or change their bets.

The incident started when Megann's Fame began thrashing badly inside the gate. Megann's Fame injured herself and the filly to her outside, Joy of It All, who was the slight 5-2 favorite at the time.

Both horses were scratched, making Maria's Halo the 3-2 favorite after the deletion of money wagered on the two scratched horses. Pick four and pick three bettors with Joy of It All automatically were assigned Maria's Halo, who wound up fifth.

Under the new rule - in place since Nov. 13 at all tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. except Hollywood Park - no transactions are allowed after wagering closes at zero minutes to post. Races begin two or three minutes after betting stops, thereby allowing tracks to account for all wagers and preventing changes in odds during races. The rule was conceived partly because some fans believed the integrity of the parimutuel system was being violated, a concern heightened by the ongoing Breeders' Cup pick six scandal.

Formerly, fans would have been able to obtain refunds or exchanges after the scratches were announced before the race.

Churchill patron Bill Steiden said he started rolling pick threes with Joy of It All, then was dismayed when assigned Maria's Halo, "a horse I had specifically taken a stand against."

Chief steward Bernie Hettel said he and other officials "knew there would be problems such as this" with the new policy but that "maintaining the public's confidence is the higher priority."