12/19/2008 1:00AM

Holiday warning - don't let sport get Scrooged


What do you get for the sport that once had everything?

There are only a few shopping days left before Christmas - better known in the racing world as Santa Anita Eve - and frankly I'm stumped. Laboring under the idea that 'tis better to give than receive, this citizen of racing feels gratefully obligated to impart some meager words of wisdom, or at least comfort, to the good people of the Thoroughbred world.

Time and tempers are getting short, though, and I'm not sure it is enough right now to pray to the racing gods (both of them) for a Derby horse for Allen Jerkens and let it go at that. As 2008 fades and the anticipated economic horrors of 2009 begin to appear on the horizon, it might be best to face facts and shop in a different sort of store.

Enter off a busy, windblown street. Elevator on the right. Third floor, aisle one, and step into the Department of Worst Case Scenarios, filled with holiday specials. The fire sale of Magna Entertainment assets is a hot item. Hollywood Park is off the shelf, finally closed down by its real estate investment fund owners, but slot machines are on back-order for Belmont Park, supposedly a good thing. Ravaged by survivor's guilt and scared witless, racetrack managements everywhere cut operations and marketing to the bone and continue rifling the couch cushions for loose change. Racing becomes so marginalized that ESPN creates a third Breeders' Cup program and no one notices. In the ultimate insult, PETA removes racing from its list of targeted malefactors . . . out of pity.

Second floor, behind kitchen wares, can be found the Department of Self-Inflicted Wound Care. The most popular items include pre-screening kits for trainers who think they might win a Kentucky Derby. A simple tissue sample is all it takes to tell the user how he or she pans out as a potential media icon, based on the broadly accepted Matz-Dutrow spectrum (with "child-rescuing Olympian" at one end and "repentant drug addict" at the other). Most individuals will want to fall somewhere in between, ideally in the safe Shirreffs Zone ("taciturn Vietnam vet") or in the optimum Servis Center. In addition, the new line of Hasbro medication-related action figures is very popular, mostly among pre-teen males and recent vet school grads. Check out Roid Rage, Demon Shake, and Lord Venom. Collect them all!

Basement, for books, eight-track car stereos, wooden bats and the Department of the More Things Change (the More They Stay the Same). Bargains galore here. Five- and six-day racing-week calendars (12-month, of course) are piled high in a corner. "Integrity," the men's fragrance and line of toiletries first marketed more than 20 years ago by Le Jockey Club, retains a trace of its original essence at a fraction of the cost. "Rulette," a board game that didn't fly, figured it would be fun to try and match the various states with their variety of racing regulations, with bonus points for identifying the first state to require fingerprints and a photo from the Queen.

Finally, top floor, gift wrap, credit, returns, and the Department of Wishful Thinking. What's this! It's Christmas, and the place is filled with cavorting holiday ReinDeere. The NTRA has become a wholly owned subsidiary of a tractor manufacturer, which means "Nothing Runs Like a Deere . . . or a Thoroughbred" is a candidate for racing's new catchphrase, replacing "Seabiscuit . . . Again!" Over there, the kids are lined up to sit in Santa's lap, only Santa has an Austrian accent, tells the kids what they want, and keeps pushing some energy drink in a festive can.

Shopping is done. Time to go home and hit the sauce. One more stop, though, in the lobby, where beneath a grand tree decorated with the bright flotsam and jetsam of a thousand racetrack giveaways, the tinkling of a grand piano gives way to an elderly gent with a shock of snow-white hair and rimless glasses. Children and racetrack consultants are gathered about, eyes bright, as he bent over a lectern to read from the only seasonal story that applies. It wasn't the New Testament.

"The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One," the reader began, summoning Dickens and the spectre of his Ghost of Christmas Past from "A Christmas Carol."

"He advanced towards it trembling," the reader went on. "The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

" 'Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,' said Scrooge, 'answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?' Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood."

At this point the reader looked up, wondering if anyone was paying heed, then read on.

" 'Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,' said Scrooge. 'But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!' "

Then he closed the book.