05/22/2009 12:00AM

Horse shortage a puzzler but also opportunity

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NEW YORK - Last week, depending on which day it was, American racing veered from feast to famine.

On Saturday, May 16, the sport soared with a historic Preakness Stakes showdown that attracted national attention, higher television ratings, and a 29 percent jump in betting over last year.

Four days later, two of the nation's three premier tracks running in May were open only for simulcasting after cancelling their scheduled cards of live racing. Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park will be dark on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future, because of a horse shortage that no one really seems able to explain.

It's not the end of the world, or even the racing world, for Hollywood and Churchill to skip a few Wednesdays. There's probably too much racing anyway nowadays, and better to have four decent cards a week than five that are diluted with tiny and uncompetitive fields. Still, no one seems able to explain why there are 20 percent fewer horses available to race in Kentucky and Southern California than there were a year ago or even a few weeks ago.

Most people, including horse owners, aren't as rich as they used to be, and it's getting harder than ever to attract new owners after the economic meltdown, but it's not as if there are hundreds of ready but abandoned racehorses just standing around waiting for new owners.

Betting is down amid the recession, but racing is actually outperforming the rest of the gambling industry. The handle on Derby Day, Churchill Downs's primary moneymaker for its entire spring-summer meeting, was down only 5 percent from a year ago.

It's particularly alarming if there's really a shortage of fit and sound horses in Kentucky and California, and not only because of the size of these markets. These are the two states whose racing was supposed to become more robust with the installation of synthetic tracks. What happened to the increased health and fitness, and increase in starts per year, that were supposed to flow from the adoption of new racing surfaces at Keeneland, Turfway, and all the major California tracks?

It's also unclear how much these cancellations are because of a genuine horse shortage and how much they are acts of political theater. Track operators in both states are pushing hard for tax relief and/or alternative gaming (slot machines). The cutbacks, which will continue this summer when even stately Del Mar is pulling back from six to five days a week, are useful to highlight the urgency for change in both states.

There's always a crisis somewhere in racing, though, and it's possible that a little less of it could make sense regardless of what legislative action is or isn't taken this year. If the dates cutbacks stick, this could be an opportunity for tracks to do something they should have been doing all along: Work together on scheduling race dates, stakes schedules, and post times, in order to present a more attractive and coordinated product to the national betting audience.

It doesn't make any sense that racing has an ever-increasing number of stakes races even though horses are making half as many starts per year as they used to and the foal crop is barely half of what it once was. If we're going to have less overall racing, it's also time to have less stakes racing. No track wants to give up a single graded stakes race, but some premier events are becoming as thin as the Wednesday cards that are being canceled.

Get those windows closed

Two recent incidents at Hollywood and Penn National, where betting pools didn't close when they should have, would have been a lot less likely to occur if tracks would simply implement one no-brainer solution to this ongoing problem: Stop all betting when the first horse enters the starting gate.

In addition to having a uniform rule that might make the issuance of stop-betting protocols more automatic, this change would end that unseemly sight of odds changing multiple times during the course of a race. While there's no evidence that these odds changes signify skullduggery rather than antiquated technology, they make racing look incompetent at best and treacherous at worst.

A noisy minority of customers, who believe they have a constitutional right to observe how horses behave in the staring gate before punching in their wagers at the last possible millisecond, would complain. For about a week. Then everyone would adjust his behavior and bet a minute earlier if necessary. Tracks are terrified of making this change because they think they would lose handle. They would - for about a week.

The only thing needed to make this work is an agreement among the major tracks to do it and stick with it. It would only take the big three to get it done: If Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment, and the New York Racing Association would agree on this and just do it, it could start by next Wednesday. Well, better make that Thursday.