02/22/2007 12:00AM

History jotted in the margins


ARCADIA, Calif. - Upon his election last year for a third term as president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka proudly announced that he had received 93.5 percent of the vote. A few months later, Lukashenka himself admitted that the actual figure was 82.6 percent, and that the higher number was fabricated in an attempt to curry favor with European democracies. Nice try.

The difference between the two figures used to describe the lopsided electoral romp in a one-party nation like Belarus is inconsequential, unless Vegas laid 90 percent as the under-over. However, when it comes to the world of Thoroughbred racing, the actual distance by which a horse wins or loses has true meaning. In racing, numbers count.

That is why it was such a shock this week to absorb the news from Equibase, the great gatherer of all things statistical, that the winning margins in two of the eight Breeders' Cup races contested last year at Churchill Downs have been changed. What we all innocently believed was a 4 1/4-length victory by Round Pond in the Breeders' Cup Distaff was really 5 1/2 lengths. And that conclusive 2 3/4-length win by Miesque's Approval in the Breeders' Cup Mile was actually a score by four.

In the case of Round Pond, the adjustment does nothing but enhance the melancholy nature of her triumph in a race marred by the breakdowns of Pine Island and Fleet Indian. It could have been by 10, and the heartache still would linger.

However, the recalibration of the Miesque's Approval margin triggers an historical note of significance. In fact, the new number equals the Mile record that was set in 1988, also at Churchill Downs, by Miesque, the paternal granddam of Miesque's Approval.

Chuck Scaravilli, Equibase vice president of track and field, said that his company received an inquiry from an informed source suggesting the margins be reviewed.

"We get comments all the time, a lot of them coming in on our feedback e-mail address," Scaravilli said. "Some are pretty far out, but we look into all of them. In this case, it was clear a change needed to be made. We've got no ego when it comes to accuracy, especially when it has to do with races of such importance."

These days, margins are plotted through an extrapolation of digitally measured time. Scaravilli noted that on rare occasions the time markers might not take into sufficient account the differences in speed between the two horses for which a margin is being measured. It took old-fashioned visual analysis to validate the fact that Round Pond and Miesque's Approval each had separated themselves from the runner-up by an additional 1 1/4 lengths.

"In the past, our chart callers have had the option of comparing the photo-finish reports with the actual videotape of the race," Scaravilli added. "Now, we've made it mandatory. We think it's that important."

That's a relief. But what about the previous hundred years or so of American racing history? If, in this modern age, we can't get the winning margins of the most important events correct at first crack, how many of the game's most iconic numbers can now be called into question? The mind boggles at the thought of such headline stories:

o As part of a rambling deathbed confession, the former brother-in-law of a backup clocker who once worked at Arlington Park admitted that the world-record mile time of 1:32 1/5 credited to Dr. Fager in the running of the 1968 Washington Park Handicap was fudged upwards.

"I can't remember the real time," said Carl Manolete, a retired pipefitter and part-time rodeo clown who died of suspiciously natural causes last week in Skokie. "But I know it was something like a minute 25 and change - so fast it scared everybody senseless. The brass there told us to add just enough to make it semi-believable, otherwise people would stop breeding horses altogether out of sheer frustration none of them would ever be another Dr. Fager."

o In a late Friday afternoon press release, slipped under the door of the local AP office in hopes it would be ignored, the New York Racing Association admitted that photographs and records of Secretariat's 1973 Belmont Stakes victory at Belmont Park were doctored to make it appear as if the Triple Crown champion had won the race by the reported "31 lengths."

"It was really more of a walkover," said freelance publicist Shelly Trouffaut. "As soon as Chic Anderson called out how Secretariat was 'moving like a tremendous machine,' the rest of the field just stopped dead and headed back to the barns. We had to talk people into accepting their part of the purse money, they were so embarrassed."

o The posthumous diaries of riding great Bill Shoemaker have revealed that three-time Horse of the Year Forego actually carried 164 pounds, instead of the reported 137, in his thrilling, last-jump victory over Honest Pleasure in the 1976 running of the Marlboro Cup.

"There was a storm brewing, and I didn't want to miss my plane home to California," Shoemaker wrote. "So I stashed my duffel bag, travel iron, and a copy of 'War and Peace' I was reading in the saddlepad along with all the lead, then headed for the parking lot right from the scale. He also carried my golf clubs, but they had those new aluminum shafts, so it was no big deal. Hey, he was Forego."