01/31/2002 1:00AM

Gremlins plague new timing system


ARCADIA, Calif. - It promises to be another epic duel between two of California's fastest front-runners. Western Pride and Orientate battle Saturday in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, where three weeks earlier they finished one-two despite unmerciful fractions in the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando Stakes.

The tote board fractions told the tale. The first half-mile went in 44.86 seconds, a faster pace than most six-furlong sprints. Three-quarters went in a scorching 1:08.80, fastest of the meet by more than a second. Western Pride and Orientate stayed at each other's throats, propelled by a blatant speed bias that allowed them to dominate. While no bias is expected Saturday, one constant remains - pace.

In the 1 1/8-mile Strub, pace is the story of the race. There is a question, however, whether the story will be revealed in a timely fashion. That is because five weeks into the winter meet, Santa Anita continues to struggle with a timing system that simply refuses to cooperate.

This meet, tote board timer malfunctions have become a daily standard. It began opening day, when fractions weren't posted during the running of most of the races, and continued through Wednesday (the 26th day of the meet) when two of the eight races were run without fractions being posted. About 10 to 15 percent of all races this winter at Santa Anita have been run without fractions being posted.

"It's very frustrating; we understand the importance of the timing system," said Stuart Zanville, director of marketing and public relations. He added: "We are very much aware of the problem, and we're doing everything we can to make it right."

According to Zanville, a new timing system was put in place this meet because "the old system was outdated." The reason was "to bring it into the 21st century. When they put in a new computer system like this, it's something they can't test."

Essential Data Control Systems is the Phoenix-based company that provides technical support for the timing system. The company was not informed until Dec. 23, three days before the winter meet began, that Santa Anita wished to upgrade its system.

"We normally like to have a couple weeks to test it," said company spokesman Robert Cobourn.

Due to the belated timing of the upgrade order, the company was left to test the system between races.

Five weeks into the season, troubles persist.

Much of the problem concerns "cells" positioned around the racetrack circumference. Each cell is actually a pair of cells - a transmitter and receiver located on the inside and outside rails. There are 20 cells on the main track, 45 on turf. When a cell is blocked, or triggered by something unexpected, the system can fail. According to both EDCS's Cobourn, and track timer Jeff Tufts, "work-arounds" exist in the system that allow it to function even if a cell is blocked. Making it work is another story.

Late Wednesday, Cobourn suggested the main problem with the new system is the start cell, which is the cell triggered shortly after the start of the race. Timing of a race begins when the start cell is set off. The start cell, however, has persistently gone off without a horse leaving the gate. It happened Sunday and Wednesday in seven-furlong races, preventing fractions from being posted.

"Apparently, what happened [in Wednesday's sixth race] was the same thing that happened Sunday, something was in front of the cells," Tufts said. "Since opening day, I don't remember having any seven-eighths trouble until Sunday. Now I've had two straight. Something's down there [in the seven-furlong chute] - the starter, an outrider, or a third party."

Discussions among track officials this week were expected to alleviate the seven-furlong problem, but a one-mile race on Wednesday also was run without fractions posted. According to Tufts, birds set off a cell before the horses did, causing the race to be hand-timed. He said during the 2000-2001 winter meet, he corrected "30 or 40" turf times because birds set off the cells, which led to bad times on the board.

Tufts said the new timing system has a feature that allows the operator to lock out a problematic cell, "but with a flock of birds, you have no shot" because of their unpredictability.

"An electronic system, no matter how good it is, is going to fail sometimes," said Tufts. "That's why they require someone to hand-time all the races."

Meanwhile, the Santa Anita meet goes on, timing-system bugs and all. Said Zanville: "The system is working. As the the glitches show up, they are being fixed."

When front-runners Western Pride and Orientate show up in the Strub, arguably the most interesting pace battle of the season, one only hopes the tote board fractions tell the timely tale.

That, of course, means posting fractions while the race is being run.