01/31/2004 1:00AM

Keeping sharks out of pool aids small fish


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Sometimes giving the average horseplayer an even break pays off. At least that's what the facts and figures released for the first third of the current Tampa Bay Downs meeting suggest.

With little fanfare, the track instituted a new business policy this season in which it stopped accepting wagers from a number of betting outlets, primarily offshore sites. Some of these sites have among their clientele a faction that employs sophisticated computer systems that reveal last-minute wagering opportunities the average horseplayer has no way of tracking.

"We just felt it wasn't fair to the vast majority of our patrons for a few people with access to sophisticated computer programs to, in a sense, manipulate the system," said Pete Berube, general manager of Tampa By Downs. "We thought by refusing to allow our signal to be sent to such sites, we would level the playing field for our bettors."

Handle figures indicate Tampa Bay Downs isn't missing those offshore gamblers. Through the first 31 days of the current meeting, the all-sources handle is up a whopping 26.3 percent, averaging $2.8 million per day, an increase of $585,000. The ontrack handle is up 23.8 percent, to $262,000 per day, and the average ontrack attendance is up 15.9 percent, to 3,190 daily.

Much of the increase, though, is offset by the continuing impasse over simulcast fees between the track and Magna Entertainment Corporation and the New York Racing Association, both of which have stopped sending their signals here, with the exception of Magna's Gulfstream Park.

The handle on imported simulcasts at Tampa Bay is off 30 percent, but according to Berube, agreeing to the increased fees that Magna and NYRA are asking would be economic suicide.

"Fortunately, Tampa's signal is still sent to every major market in the country, except California," said Berube, "and that's for every live racing program, not just Tuesday."

Begley warming up to winter

Trainer Earl Begley Jr. endured a brutal winter last season in Maryland. This winter, Begley decided to take his stable to warmer climes, and it looks like the decision has paid off.

Last Friday, Begley sent out his eighth winner of the meeting when Buccaneer Fever won the third race. Begley said it was nice to get up in the morning and know his horses could train every day this winter, something they couldn't do last year.

"It was just a brutal winter up north last year," said Begley. "The track had to be closed quite a bit, and it just wreaked havoc to any plans for regular training. It's really a change to be able to set up a work board and be able to stick to it."

Begley has both claiming and stakes horses in his stable of 18. Two of his best are Love Sam, a stakes-winning sprinter, and Pleasant Honor, a stakes winner at The Meadowlands who is slated to see action in about a month.

Pleasant Honor "got sick after we got here, so he's just now coming back," said Begley. "He showed some promise last season, and we're hopeful he'll come back and do some good this spring and summer."