08/17/2005 11:00PM

Jumpers at Spa a thorny problem

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Should steeplechasing continue at Saratoga?

That was the question being asked around the track and town after the finish of Wednesday's second race, when a chain-reaction spill over the final fence left a sickening tangle of fallen horses and riders. A race that began with a field of nine starters ended 2 1/16 miles later with just two horses completing the race, after three fell, two others lost their riders, and two more left the course.

Since there was no third-place finisher, the incident prompted some parimutuel oddities. The show pool was calculated as a place pool, and the trifecta became an "all" payoff in the third slot, making it an exacta taxed at 25 rather than 17.5 percent. (The policy governing that latter payoff, incidentally, demands a rule change to protect the public. A trifecta turned into an exacta, like a pick three turned into a daily double, should be taxed at the two-horse rather than three-horse rate.)

Parimutuel concerns have always been half the ongoing argument about steeplechasing's place at Saratoga. The races attract roughly half the betting of a flat race because bettors are unfamiliar with the jumping game and its participants, and many believe the races defy rational handicapping. The steeplechase races also lead to lower betting and revenues for the track by reducing the amount bet on the traditional early daily double and by forcing the cancellation of the early pick four.

Despite the lower betting, the races offer about the same purses as their flat equivalents - $45,000 for the first-level allowance field in Wednesday's second race, for example. These are nearly twice what these horses run for at other flat tracks and steeplechase meets.

So Saratoga effectively subsidizes steeplechasing in order to preserve a tradition. After a race such as Wednesday's second, though, the question is whether it is a tradition worth preserving.

While Wednesday's incident was unusual in its severity, it is hardly isolated. Last year, only one horse fell from 75 starters in nine steeplechases, but 13 others did not complete their races. This year, only 39 of 55 starters in six races have finished.

The situation is worse at Saratoga than at the non-betting Mid-Atlantic steeplechase meets that attract as many as 50,000 picnickers and tailgaters. The inner turf course used for the jump races here is designed for flat racing and is generally harder than courses used primarily for steeplechasing. Horses may go faster on the stretches between fences, leading to fatigue late in the race, where most of the spills occur. Also, given the higher purses and the opportunity for wagering absent from most steeplechase meets, there may be a greater intensity to the contests.

So there may be something to be said for considering shorter races with fewer fences, but it simply is impossible to eliminate spills entirely.

"If you understand the game," said Bill Gallo, director of racing for the National Steeplechase Association, "it's part of the game."

The larger question is how much of that game belongs at Saratoga. The two steeplechase stakes races at the meeting, contests among the nation's most accomplished jumpers that rarely are marred by spills, certainly belong, but how many more do? The races have been moved to the front of the card to keep them from interfering with multirace bets and doing any more economic damage than they already do, and there are only nine jump races at the 36-day meeting. Even after Wednesday's fiasco, steeplechase officials said they were planning to press for an increase to 12 next year, while some track officials would like to see the number decrease to six.

The burden is on steeplechase proponents to make their case. The races do not pull their weight economically, and the familiar lament that the races are popular with locals and casual racegoers is unsupported by data and hard to take seriously amid aesthetic disasters such as Wednesday's pileup.

This is not say that steeplechasing does not have merits that deserve some consideration. Many steeplechase meets raise significant monies for charity, and the sport does provide a second career and good homes for flat racers past their prime, an area in which the racing industry at large has an improving but still poor overall record.

The steeplechase community needs to do a better job of telling those stories instead of acting entitled to even more racing at Saratoga while continually blaming the press and gamblers for failing to appreciate and support their game. Steeplechasing is on thin ice at Saratoga and that ice got a lot thinner after only two out of nine horses could finish Wednesday's second race.