03/08/2006 12:00AM

Latest new ideas are a mixed bag


TUCSON, Ariz. - Ideas in horse racing, as in most endeavors, come in two basic flavors: good and bad. In recent days the sport tasted a few scoops of each.

In California, the racing board approved, subject to public comment ending April 10, uncoupling of horses racing under common ownership. Bad flavor, bad idea. It makes little sense to make loud noise about integrity and late administration of Salix, and then uncouple horses owned by one owner in overnights.

Commissioner John Harris said, "I think we'll get some comment on this," and they should. This is a rule of convenience, introduced as an antidote to California racing's short fields, and not for the betterment of the game. Racing has enough strange animals; it doesn't need entry rabbits scampering on the track.

Also in California, a taste of both good and bad. Tracks with synthetic surfaces may turn out to be the best idea since sliced bread, but only after they have been used under actual battle conditions for a few years. Making them mandatory now, which has been proposed by the California Horse Racing Board, is a multimillion dollar knee jerk. Advocacy is one thing; mandating is another. Those who overlook history may be forced to relive it, and there is a history to synthetic tracks that is being overlooked.

Neither Martin Collins's Polytrack, nor Michael Dickinson's Tapeta, which has won dual praise from both Thoroughbred and harness trainers who have worked horses over it, are the pioneers in this field.

Like so many other things now accepted as part of Thoroughbred racing, the prototype came from harness racing. Simulcasting was one of them, first introduced by Bill King, encouraged by his fellow promoting genius Sonny Werblin, when King owned Louisville Downs, later to become Churchill Downs's Sports Spectrum. The idea was expanded by The Meadows in Pennsylvania, with its wide pioneering network that led to its satellite OTBs.

It also was The Meadows that pioneered synthetic tracks in 1963. The late, great harness horseman Delvin Miller was a good friend of Johnny Nerud, who trained the Tartan Thoroughbreds of W.L. McKnight, then chairman of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M). Besides being a world-renowned trainer and driver, Miller also was a major shareholder in The Meadows, just south of Pittsburgh, and after first using a test strip at Hempt Farms in Pennsylvania, Miller had 3M install a five-eighth-mile Tartan track at The Meadows.

This was a racetrack with a very long season and nightly pounding by 10 or more races. It was heralded initially for the same reasons Polytrack and Tapeta are justly hailed - uniformity and a friendly and less punishing surface for horses - but Miller was a realist, and when his Tartan track began coming apart under constant usage he had it torn up and returned to dirt.

Tropical Park, in 1966, and Calder Race Course, upon its opening in 1971, also briefly experimented with a Tartan surface. Both tracks soon ended up pouring sand over the rubberized surface after numerous complaints by horsemen.

Time still is a valid test, and while synthetic tracks may turn out to be saviors of the sport, they need a few years of constant use before being crammed down someone's throat.

In Delaware, the executive director of the Standardbred Owners Association, Sal DiMario, asked the harness commission to allow 2-year-olds to race with Bute in their systems on race day. That's a very bad idea, for racing and for 2-year-olds and the people who own and bet on them. DiMario told the commission "six or seven" horsemen wanted it. Commissioner Bob Everett, to his credit, said horsemen he talked to were totally against the idea. Hurrah for them, and for the commission, which delayed the matter a month at Everett's urging. It should reject it out of hand. We've done enough harm to the breed; let's spare the babies.

The Thoroughbred racing commission in Delaware approved the use of blood gas testing. Good idea, but milkshaking now is far down the list of what bad guys will use, or are using, and it will take more than blood gas tests to catch and stop them.

In Kentucky, the Cornell Collar was approved for use on horses with displacement of the soft palate. Any idea that can effectively replace invasive surgery is a good idea. The naysayers claim trainers can run horses hot or cold by misuse of it, and Turfway stewards said it could affect performance if put on incorrectly. So, it might be pointed out, can something as basic as improper adjustment of a bridle, and it might be shocking for some to learn of the mishandling of that basic skill.

All ideas are not created equal. Those that can help racing should be welcomed and tried. Those that hurt it should be rejected, quickly.