06/06/2002 11:00PM

Late odds drops a real problem

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NEW YORK - When horseplayers exchange parimutuel horror stories these days, their tales seem increasingly to involve the agony of victory rather than defeat - the agony of betting a horse at 7-2 as he goes into the gate and then watching him drop to 3-1 as he takes the lead around the first turn, 5-2 as he turns for home a winner, and 2-1 by the time his victory is official.

Changes in the odds as races are being run is a genuine and growing problem in racing. Keeping the customers happy is already a challenge in a game where even winners lose most of the time, and it becomes almost impossible when they feel as if they're taking the worst of it even when they win.

The shame of the situation is that it looks as though something nefarious is afoot when, in fact, it's nothing worse than slow technology and fearful management at work. The greater shame is that the industry could make the issue go away overnight by acting in a united way.

It's all a function of increased simulcasting and offtrack betting exacerbating the longstanding preference of many customers to bet in the final minute. More people than ever are betting late for several reasons. Simulcast junkies playing half a dozen tracks are rushing to make it in under the wire all day. If you're betting 50 rather than 10 races a day, a lot more of your bets are going to be made at the last moment. Also, with more betting being done at half-empty simulcast venues stocked with rows of self-service machines, players can wait longer and be assured of ambling to a deserted machine with 30 seconds to go instead of getting on a line to avoid a shutout and being forced to bet sooner.

It's no problem if someone at the track bets in the final seconds, because his dollars go directly into the pool and are reflected almost immediately on the odds board. If someone makes that same bet 1,000 miles away, perhaps at a small outlet that sends its bets to a regional hub that then sends them on to the host track, this late money does not show up on the public odds display for as much as a minute after the gates open.

It looks as if people are betting after the race has started when they're not, fueling horseplayers' ingrained and understandable paranoia about the entire enterprise. They argue that horses "never" go up in price en route to victory, which is not true, but may seem that way because last-minute money has always been disproportionately skewed to favorites. Someone looking to send it in at 6-5 is going to wait longer to see if his price holds up whereas someone boxing his lucky numbers is more likely to bet further away from post time.

This isn't to say that there haven't been isolated incidents of past-posting, especially in the early days of simulcasting. There have been documented cases of New England sharpies betting during the first quarter mile, and some regional OTB's in New York once were forwarding pick six combinations after a race or two had been run, miraculously singling longshot winners. Such loopholes have been closed, however, and the phenomenon players now routinely see is a function of transmission time rather than larceny.

Still, it looks terrible and does nothing but anger customers. It's fixable in a heartbeat - just close all offtrack betting with a minute to post. Individual tracks will not do this, however, because they fear that last-second players will move their action to another circuit. This fear has been documented. New York used to have an early shutoff, and when it finally raised the white flag and followed other tracks' leads, its out-of-state handle went up solely because of last-minute betting. No single mutuel manager is going to cut his handle by taking a brave, isolated stand.

The trick is to get everyone to do it. If all tracks would agree to a one-minute cutoff, announced and publicized well in advance, and told players that this was how the game would work from now on, overall business would suffer for no more than a day or two and no one would lose handle to anyone else. Horseplayers would adjust their behavior quickly, and there would be at most a week of shut-out complaints until this became a new fact of life.

It costs nothing and the inconvenience of changing the status quo is a tiny price to pay for preserving public confidence in the integrity of the parimutuel system. If nothing is done, it will demonstrate beyond a doubt how thoroughly lacking this industry is in vision, resolve and, above all, leadership. Sadly, the past performances suggest that is the way you're supposed to bet.