07/27/2005 11:00PM

Jury still out on security barns

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The overheated furor over makeshift security-barn facilities that dominated an overheated opening day at Saratoga raised both short- and long-term issues about the most significant change in New York racing this year.

The immediate matter of the adequacy of the Saratoga facilities is the easier one to address. There was at the very least poor communication between horsemen and management over whether temporary tents and nine-foot-square stalls with plywood floors were going to be satisfactory six-hour housing for the world's premier race meeting. Management says it heard no complaints until opening day, while some trainers claim they raised the issue a month earlier. At least both sides are now talking and trying to make the best of a bad situation. One can only hope that by next year vastly improved facilities will be erected if the security-barn program is still in place.

Like motherhood and ice cream, everyone supports integrity in racing, and the security-barn program met only mild grumbling when it was instituted in May at Belmont.

Three months later, though, nobody can say whether it has had any effect, positive or negative, on the sport beyond being a symbolic gesture.

People who think the game is rife with preventable cheating thought the security barn would upend the trainer standings and derail some highly successful outfits. There is no evidence that this has happened. A couple of leading stables won fewer races, but only because they made more starts out of town due to attractive purse levels at other Eastern tracks. Their winning percentages in New York were virtually unchanged. There was no significant change in the average times or speed figures of winning races.

NYRA officials say they plan to study the results of the Belmont meeting further, but they are a little overburdened these days - between hurriedly ordering rubber mats for the temporary stalls, and trying to escape further federal prosecution - to make that a priority.

The good news about the seeming lack of effect of the security-barn program is that it clearly did not create the problems that many trainers feared. In general, the racing at Belmont and the first two days of Saratoga was extremely formful, with no increase of inexplicably poor performances that might be blamed on the new procedures. Trainers are always happy to find excuses when they don't win, but there has been no rash of complaints that horses ran poorly because they were removed from their home stalls six hours before they raced.

All of which leaves us back where we started in April. The entire issue of cheating seems to remain in the eye of the beholder.

Optimists will say that the apparently minimal changes in the racing show there was no big problem to begin with, while cynics merely say it proves that whatever the uncannily successful are doing is so advanced that even isolation and prerace testing can't stop it.

See no races, hear no races

A silly inconvenience at this meeting has gotten even sillier this year with the elimination of live Saratoga race calls over the Capital OTB in-home television channel.

It was bad enough in recent years that video of the Saratoga races could not be shown live on the channel, available to all basic-cable customers in the Albany and Saratoga areas. In-home customers had to get by with an audio race call heard over a screen of text.

This began as a misguided NYRA policy that was supposed to increase live attendance at the track, and then became a matter of exclusivity once NYRA sold in-home rights to the Television Games Network, which is available only via satellite in the area. Now this year, even the audio calls have been cut off, leaving the majority of in-home customers to wait in silence until after a race has been run, after which they are finally allowed to see an "instant replay."

Unless someone wants to re-enact "The Sting" with a wire scam, it is difficult to see how this serves anyone's interest. TVG can not accept accounts from New York state residents, so enforcing its exclusivity does not garner it customers. All that the policy does is annoy locals trying to play from home, most of whom now can't see or hear live racing from Saratoga.