08/27/2002 11:00PM

If baseball goes dark, let racing's light glow

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DEL MAR, Calif. - There was a time, way back before sports turned Xtreme, when baseball and horse racing were the only big league games in town.

There was college football, sure, and a smattering of interest in golf, tennis, and track. But the NFL was an awkward infant, hockey was Canada's problem, and the NBA was a freak show filled with gawky white guys. Channel swimmers got more ink.

Amazing as it seems, at the midpoint of the 20th century, the most popular sports in America, practiced by professionals, were horse racing and baseball.

Now that baseball is about to roll up its tent with another strike (there have been eight stoppages since 1972), and horse racing is in the midst of a summer mini-boom, this may be a good time to compare the two pastimes.

Sports fans need to be clear on their choices.

* Baseball is a game played on television by millionaires for the benefit of billionaires who never stand in line for a hot dog. Horse racing has its economic elite as well, but fans can look around and see owners, trainers, grooms, and hotwalkers in the thick of the crowd, winning and losing right alongside the paying customers.

* Between the lines, baseball is a time-honored endeavor, rife with strategy and sophisticated technique that basically boils down to two guys playing a game of catch. The occasional flurry of action invariably takes place while you're waiting in line for beer. In horse racing, there is before and after, but when the flag falls there is only action.

* Baseball is the sport that preoccupies the widely watched "SportsCenter" on ESPN with a nightly package of highlights that leads viewers to believe the game is made of nothing but towering home runs and spectacular grabs. Horse racing makes "SportsCenter" only if Bob Baffert has a colt going for the Triple Crown.

* There is always the potential for a major league baseball player to be killed doing his job (even Randy Johnson has his wild nights), but it hasn't happened since Aug. 16, 1920, when Yankees pitcher Carl Mays terminally beaned Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman in the fifth inning at the Polo Grounds. According to stats kept by the Jockeys' Guild, at least 142 riders have been killed in competition since 1941.

There are perhaps a dozen racetracks with late-summer meets that do business within nominal driving distance of a Major League Baseball franchise. Laurel Park has the Orioles up the road in Baltimore. Arlington Park has the Sox and the Cubs in Chicago. Emerald Downs shares the "small market" of Seattle with the Mariners, while Canterbury Downs does business in the suburbs of Minneapolis, where the Twins do their thing.

And even though the Mets are in last place once again, they still steal the show from their Long Island neighbor, Belmont Park. Could horse racing actually benefit from a baseball strike?

"We think so," said Craig Fravel. "The last strike was in 1994, and we had a great year. At least that was one of the reasons we attributed it to."

As executive vice-president of Del Mar, which competes each summer with the popular (though 56-75) San Diego Padres, Fravel does not actively wish for a disruption in the social fabric that a baseball strike would undoubtedly cause. But he'll take it.

"We've tried to show horses as different from human athletes," Fravel said. "This is another opportunity to present that on a national level, too."

Cue the NTRA, and its in-house creative team. This may be the time to trot out an "Only Game in Town" ad campaign. Or at least something that sets racing apart as different from the sour, heartless world of baseball.

As a racetrack executive since the 1970's and today president of Calder Race Course, Ken Dunn has borne witness to the dissolution of a world championship organization right next door at Miami's ProPlayer Stadium, where the Marlins sometimes toil before crowds that include little more than family and friends. Such a dreary neighbor is very little help to local businesses.

"We saw a positive impact the first year, when they averaged 30,000 a game," Dunn said of the Marlins. "Now they've come crashing down. They may have had 5,000 paid last night, but there couldn't have been 3,500 in the ballpark."

Still, this is no time for racing to be smug. Baseball does not have a monopoly on self-destructive tendencies. Dunn was a long-time director of the TRA before shifting his efforts to the NTRA.

"It was amazing to me," Dunn said, "how many years would go by in racing with the same kind of thinking that hurts professional baseball - this unwillingness to address major problems on the national level, and without being very protective of your particular piece of the pie. I think we still see that in our sport.

"I have a lifelong friend, Dave Montgomery, who is president of Philadelphia Phillies," Dunn added. "I asked him if his industry was really stupid enough to let this strike happen. His answer was yes. As a group, they were foolish enough to let this happen."

Hopefully, if baseball shoots itself again, there will be people in the racing game paying attention.