08/01/2002 11:00PM

Late surface switch left bettors feeling robbed

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In an age when multirace bets such as Pick Threes and Fours are becoming a popular staple of the wagering menu, racing needs new rules to prevent what happened to Pick Four players at Saratoga Thursday from ever happening again.

I speak not as a disgruntled bettor, as any personal gruntling potential had evaporated when I failed to include the upset winner of the second leg on my own ticket. What happened to most of those who were alive after two legs, however, was appalling. Management did nothing wrong, but regulators need to draft some rules to protect bettors when this situation arises again, which it surely will.

Here's what happened. When Pick Four betting on races 6 through 9 closed at 3:44 p.m. Thursday, the track was officially labeled "fast," and there was no reason to think that the eighth race an hour later would not be run on the grass. But shortly after Hope for Love got most Pick Four players alive with a runaway victory at 2-1 in the sixth, the skies opened and the track was pelted with heavy rain.

Jerry Porcelli, the track superintendent, decided that the turf course, sprinkled by light showers earlier in the day, had now soaked up too much water to be safe, and recommended to the stewards that the race be moved to the muddy main track. The stewards realized what would happen to the multirace bettors and how unfair it would be, but properly put the safety of the horses and riders first.

"How am I going to go against a track superintendent when he makes a statement the track has too much rain?" steward Dave Hicks said. "We abided by it because if something happened out there we'd be at fault. We can't win."

Most of those still alive in these bets were knocked out in race 7 when Awesome of Course scored a $21.20 upset with Admiralty Arch third at 3-5. Those Pick Four players who used her, however, now realized that they might be dead in the water because of the surface switch.

An eight-horse grass race had scratched down to a four-horse mudfest. There were three highly logical contenders most bettors had used when the race was on grass - Multitudinous, Hottentot, and Born Something. Multitudinous, who had never run on the dirt, and Hottentot, beaten 14 lengths in her only slop start, remained in. Any wagers on Born Something, or any other scratched horse, would be switched to the post-time favorite.

The most likely slop winner now was Blu Spur, who you could not possibly have liked when you made your bet thinking the race was on the grass. In the mud, however, Blu Spur had an excellent second in the slop that had earned a Beyer Speed Figure 16 points higher than anyone else. But for whatever reasons, the public made Hottentot the narrow winner of a three-way race for favoritism at 9-5 with Multitudinous a longer 9-5 and Blu Spur 2-1. So all the scratches were switched to Hottentot, and Blu Spur, 2-1 on the board, was only on the very few tickets that had given her any shot on the grass.

Murphy's Law prevailed. Blu Spur won, with Hottentot beaten 15 and Multitudinous beaten 18. When Lovey Dovey won the finale at $8.20, you knew that the Pick Four was going to be much higher than the $864 parlay suggested by winners paying $6.10, $21.20, $6.40, and $8.20. How much higher? Try $31,929 - and a lot of long and angry faces among those who had picked the three dirt races and used the logical horses in the grass race before it was switched.

How could this situation have been avoided? Simple - with an overdue rule that states that when a race is moved to a different surface after the close of multirace betting, that race will be considered an "all" race solely for the purpose of those multirace payoffs.

This costs the racetrack nothing. The same net proceeds from the pool would have been paid out yesterday, but to holders of 3-1-ALL-11 instead of the $12 worth of tickets sold on a 3-1-10-11. The Pick Four effectively becomes a Pick Three. This rule should be applied to any multirace bet, from a daily double to the Pick Nine. Pick Six players are partially protected from this sort of thing with the ability to mark "alternate" selections on Pick Six cards, but there is no such option in other multirace bets.

This is not a difficult concept once you wrap your mind around it, and it's the right and fair thing to do. Some late changes are unavoidable and are part of the risk of multirace bets. You can't declare a race an "all" for every late scratch that might affect the pace or every sprinkle that might move someone up. Changing the fundamental conditions under which people have bet a race, its surface and often its distance, is an isolated and blatant case in which customers should not be penalized as if they bet the wrong race or track.