09/03/2004 12:00AM

I want my Spa TV!


NEW YORK - When I left Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last Monday to play the final week of the Saratoga meeting from home on Long Island, I knew I would miss a few things about being at the Spa - the cool of the evenings, the energy of live racing, the company of track buddies staying to the bitter end of the meet. One thing I have not missed, though, is the sheer torture of trying to watch Saratoga races on television in the Capital OTB district.

For almost a decade now, most New York horseplayers have had the luxury of watching the simulcast feeds from Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga every day on a public-access channel available with any cable-TV service. Channel 71 in Manhattan, Channel 74 on Long Island, and Channel 12 upstate show the entire live package of New York Racing Association racing from roughly 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, augmented by additional morning programming and out-of-state evening simulcast feeds after the NYRA races are over.

Whether this massive free exposure for racing has created any new business is open to debate, but there is no question that it gets more business from existing customers and is a welcome convenience - with one notable exception.

When the free telecasts began, some track officials, who were skeptical of simulcasting and in-home betting in general, demanded that the Saratoga races not be shown live in the Capital district because they thought people would stay home instead of attending Saratoga. The fear was irrational, and inconsistent with policy regarding other tracks - I can watch Belmont live at my home five miles from Belmont, and people who live across the street from Aqueduct get an uninterrupted feed from the Big A. But if you reside within a wide radius of Saratoga, here's what you go through:

Capital OTB shows everything from Saratoga on Channel 12 - everything except the live race. You see the paddock interviews, the post parade, the changing odds, and the horses loading into the gate. Then just as the race is about to start, you are switched to a primitive slate listing the runners and get to stare at that while hearing the live call of the race. When it's over, you see the horses pulling up around the turn, and a few minutes later you usually get to see the replay. It's a throwback to the terrible early days of OTB, when hushed horseplayers would stand around a parlor staring at blank television monitors, waiting for letters to be posted on the screen signifying a race had been run.

The whole thing is an excruciating gambling experience when you can't see what's going on. If you think getting caught at the wire is bad, try having it happen via audio alone when the racecaller has made it sound as if you were absolutely home free with 50 yards to go. Forget about checking what price your horse is during the race - Capital starts scrolling the odds from every track it is taking, so you look up to see whether your home-free horse is 5-2 or 3-1 and see he's 43-1 before realizing you're being shown the prices for a race at Arlington where there's $116 in the pool and post time is 58 minutes away. And don't count on seeing that Saratoga replay if it coincides with a live race from Finger Lakes or Monmouth.

Capital OTB shouldn't be laboring under the absurd prohibition against showing Saratoga live. It's only hurting everyone's business and annoying the customers. Worse, it has become an economically discriminatory issue amid new technology. People in the Albany-Saratoga area with satellite dishes can see the Saratoga races live on TVG, and those with high-speed Internet access can see the live feeds on their computer screen through various out-of-state betting companies. The only people being shut out of a picture are those who have only cable.

Depriving local customers of a picture does not make them go to the track. If you have a job during racing hours, or just don't feel like spending six hours outside in a crowd on a hot day, you're still not going to the track just because OTB can't show you a live picture. All that the current policy does is frustrate loyal customers and give credence to the already compelling argument that the relationship between the tracks and the OTB's in New York is a dysfunctional mess in which the public interest is rarely served.