04/17/2007 12:00AM

This idea no laughing matter


TUCSON, Ariz. - Whether anyone can beat Curlin in the Derby, whether Jerry Bailey soaking wet can single-handedly lift New York racing to its former glory, or whether Steve Wynn will put priceless art in the clubhouse at Belmont all suddenly paled into insignificance on Monday, when mass murder hit Virginia Tech.

We have become inured to daily stories of mass murder in Iraq - 43 one day, 36 the next, 49 the next - but suddenly mass murder reached us at home, with its bloody reality and horror, and we became reminded that our preoccupation with horse racing is after all a game.

It is a game, however, therapeutic in its release from the tensions of daily reality, whether terror unleashed or merely a business deal gone awry.

We turn to racing for mental and physical relaxation, for the beauty and grace and speed and power of the animal, for the excitement of subjective involvement, and we find it, day after day and week after week.

This is not to minimize what jolted the nation or the world on Monday. It is merely thankfulness that after a disruption in life like that disaster, we still have a haven to which to turn, and return, and for a few brief moments, or far longer, immerse ourselves in a world far from the maddening clamor that is life today.

So back to Jerry Bailey and Steve Wynn and their fanciful imagery, and to some of the tomfoolery in Albany that Steven Crist so aptly called a four-ring circus.

Ringling Brothers was at Madison Square Garden recently, thrilling the Big Apple with a new daredevil climactic act in which aerialists perform amazing balancing acts on a spinning, twisting Ferris wheel, without safety belts or nets.

The appeal there is risk and reality, truly exciting entertainment.

The charade in Albany, a circus of its own, was sheer fantasy.

Jerry Bailey, who overnight has become a master of commentary on racing matters, showed the smoothness of his newfound skills in a totally different arena, and while he may have charmed and captivated his political listeners, he was feeding them fairy tales.

He may, as he said, have seen the best and the worst in his far-flung travels aboard good and bad horses, and he may already have lined up, somewhat presumptously, the racing officials he feels are the best in the business. None of them, however, has changed racing dramatically where they currently or formerly worked, and while horsemen may be delighted at having them to work with, the public is likely to yawn, rather than fawn, at their presence.

Slots, as Steve Crist said and everyone knows, are the focus of this new game for all of the applicants, no matter how much they talked about revolutionizing New York racing. Crist called the plans of Empire Racing Associates and the Australian bidder Capital Play to raise takeout "outrageous," far too tame a term. The idea of raising takeout was tossed in to impress the pols, who want more money and have not the slightest idea of the relationship of takeout to handle.

Far more practical, and vastly more interesting, was an idea put forth by Bill Finley, who writes for the New York Times and ESPN Magazine and broadcasts every Saturday morning on Sirius radio with Dave Johnson in a crackerjack two-hour racing show heard nationally. Speaking at the joint meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America in Florida last month, Finley suggested that tracks do away with takeout entirely.

Before laughing loudly, consider Finley's argument. He cited Yonkers Raceway, now back in thunderous action with 6,000 or so slots sitting on the teeming Major Deegan Expressway in America's biggest market, New York City.

Its harness purses have boomed - three and four $50,000 races for the top horses on weekends, $25,000 and $35,000 for good horses during the week. But despite the crowds in its racino and its slots-fueled purses, about 10 percent of Yonkers's racing business is done ontrack, and 90 percent on its simulcast signals.

Why not, Finley asks, give up the take on that 10 percent, boost your ontrack audience incrementally by bringing back savvy players now departed to offshore bookies and poker and other venues, who might flock to a track with zero takeout, and at the same time increase your distant simulcast audience by presenting the best harness racing on the continent.

The state, too, would benefit from such a game, raising the sparse income it now receives, possibly to levels of times long gone.

No one at the Albany circus tried that act. Too daring, and too innovative. Instead, let's raise the price of a product not currently selling. Bring on the clowns.