12/19/2005 12:00AM

Gifts that racing really could use

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NEW YORK - In honor of the 12 days of Christmas, here are 12 presents that would bring smiles to many if they were under Thoroughbred racing's tree on Christmas morning:

1. A substantial across-the-board reduction in takeout. A lower takeout means more money goes back to bettors, which means an increase in handle, which makes for larger purses, which provide incentives to breeders to breed more horses and horsemen to race more horses, which means bigger fields in races, which makes for increased handle . . . as you can see, this is a wonderful cycle. This is a win-win for everyone.

2. A Triple Crown winner. This will happen sooner or later, but here's hoping for sooner. A Triple Crown winner would provide racing with just the kind of shot in the arm it needs by putting it into the mainstream media. It would also silence those who would dare alter the schedule of the Triple Crown to make achieving a Triple Crown easier. The Triple Crown is one thing in racing that should never, ever be the object of tinkering.

3. A Horse of the Year who races more like 10 to 12 times over the course of the year instead of one who races four to six times a season. Racing needs stars. But racing would do better with stars who are thoroughly proven, and who also race frequently enough to become familiar, old friends.

4. Stricter, and more uniform, medication rules. When race-day medication came along, it was done with the promise of allowing horses to perform up to their natural ability, and to perform more frequently. Instead, small field size is a serious problem for the dedicated horseplayer, form seems more erratic than it has ever been, and it's pure guesswork how a horse who raced well in one state where the medication rules are more permissive will do in another state where the medication rules are tougher. The genie probably can't be put back into the bottle when it comes to race-day medication, so let's at least try and tighten up some loopholes.

5. More funding toward detection of new performance-enhancing drugs. This isn't just a problem for Thoroughbred racing. All you have to do is look at some other sports to know that those inclined to cheat with performance-enhancing drugs are two steps ahead of the testing laboratories. That gap must be closed. The confidence of the betting public depends on it.

6. A correction of the runaway bloodstock market. When a Thoroughbred racehorse is more valuable as a breeding property than a racing property, you have the perfect example of the tail wagging the dog. There will always be big bucks at the top end of the bloodstock market, and no one wants to see a collapse. But a correction is necessary, so that when it comes to a choice of racing or breeding, the choice will always be for a Thoroughbred racehorse to do what he was meant to do, which is race.

7. A healthy New York Racing Association. It is terribly unsettling to see what is happening to New York racing, and it is something that should concern everyone in the game, not just New Yorkers. New York is still home to most of the best horses, trainers, jockeys, and races for most of the year. As such, a healthy New York racing industry is vital to the overall health of the national racing industry. Anything less, and the game as a whole suffers.

8. Substantial improvement in totalizator software to address scratches in multi-race exotic wagers. It is ridiculous that in this day and age, bettors are still, in the vast majority of instances, switched to the post-time favorite when a horse they used in a pick three or pick four is a very late scratch. And it is just this side of robbery when this happens in the first leg of a multi-race exotic wager. There is no acceptable reason why the capability hasn't been developed for bettors to designate an alternate selection in each race of a multi-race wager. Short of that, the policy should instead be a consolation payoff, or a refund if it happens in the first leg of the wager. No one wants to be put on the post-time favorite, a horse the bettor either already used or purposely omitted.

9. Parimutuel future wagers that allows for hundreds of individual betting interests, not just 23, plus a field consisting of all other horses. This is the way it should be for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks Future Wagers, and this is how it should be for the Breeders' Cup Future Bets, which should be reinstituted.

10. National coordination of post times among the most popular simulcast signals. Nothing reminds a bettor of his low position on the totem pole more than to see races at two major tracks, sometimes owned by the same corporation, go off simultaneously. All tracks have televisions, and access to other major racing signals. It's not hard to adjust post times accordingly.

11. Improved television camera coverage of races. Some people love the split-screen view of races where half the screen zooms in on the first couple of horses and the other half of the screen has a wide-angle pan shot of the entire field. Others don't like it at all. The problem with the split screen is that the view of the leading two or three horses doesn't show nearly enough, and the wide-angle view of the field, when viewed on a conventional monitor or smaller, makes the horses look like ants. Many times in this view the horses are unidentifiable, making judging race flow, and compiling trips, nearly impossible. Just because the technology exists to do this doesn't make it a good idea. When it comes to showing races, simple - as in a well-framed, full-screen shot of as much of the field as possible - is by far the best.

12. A commitment to a national fan-education program. Attempting to get racing neophytes out to the track by selling them on the beauty and pageantry of the sport and the horse might only be possibly worthwhile, and if that, to a small degree. And making this the focus of cultivating new fans is a mistake. Instead of throwing all this money and effort after people who might only come out to the track once or twice a year, it should be redirected into efforts to appeal to people's intellect. It should be funneled toward not only teaching neophytes how to read past performances, but also how to interpret them, how to use the PP's as tools, and how to make informed bets. By doing that, you will be developing fans who might come out once a week instead of once a year.