11/19/2002 12:00AM

Let's all get on same page


TUCSON, Ariz. - As racing hammers furiously to nail shut the barn door to keep more loose horses from escaping their pick six stalls, it faces at least three other major problems in this autumn of its discontent.

One, already tackled by Churchill Downs, is the perception of past posting. It is not caused by late bets, but by inadequate technology in transferring betting data, and that is its only connection to the pick six affair. Closing pools early may minimize odds changes during races, but more study is needed by the industry, and some is underway, to discover and correct what slows down pool transfers at simulcasting sites that are regularly slow.

This problem leads to another: the industry's habit of racing with blinkers-on in approaching mutual - as well as mutuel - problems with a narrow, provincial focus.

Five of the biggest racing operations in North America are dual breed. Woodbine in Toronto, The Meadowlands in New Jersey, and Hawthorne in Chicago are three of this continent's biggest tracks that offer both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing. Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment do too, Churchill through Hoosier Park in Indiana and Magna through The Meadows in Pennsylvania, and soon, Flamboro Downs in Ontario.

Beyond that are the thousands of simulcasting screens that disregard breed lines. Bettors subjected to the absurdity of two different sets of saddle-pad colors for the two sports understand that, and the problem exists only because the lords of racing don't like talking to one another.

Like it or not, the two major breeds in this country, based on parimutuel numbers, share both common and uncommon problems. Both types have been generally overlooked.

A good example is how races are started. Thoroughbred bettors deal with a standing start from a gate that is stationary for each race. Tying the closing of windows to the time horses are locked in the gate, or until it opens, may work for Thoroughbred racing. But bettors in harness racing deal with a rolling start with a mobile gate, and those bettors - particularly the bigger ones - want and are entitled to know how the horses they bet on are behaving and performing behind the gate en route to the start.

They are not entitled, any more than Thoroughbred bettors, to bet once the race is underway. It has been estimated that Standardbred pools might be diminished by 20 percent with a zero-minutes-to-post stop bet. Something less drastic - closing windows a sixteenth out from the start - is an option, but far quicker transfer of data and shorter reporting periods are better solutions. Like the pick six issue, that requires concerted action and better utilization of technology.

Whatever the agreed policy, it needs to be consistent. In its urgent call for immediate action, racing is blurring its two constituencies. One is those who currently bet. The other is the vast, desperately sought, but as yet unreachable, majority who do not.

That huge group does not understand or care about the transmission time of pick six information or the issue of past posting. It does form its own images of racing, however, from media, and this leads to a basic root problem. Racing in the United States is a hydra-headed beast, answering to disparate masters with differing rules.

The sport not only has racing commissions that can not or will not write and enforce uniform rules, acting in some cases like Afghan warlords protecting their own territory, but it has two sets of them, which hardly speak to one another.

It has been suggested that racing needs one national totalizator company, owned by the tracks. Perhaps, but racing has liked the idea of competition, not exactly an un-American view. There is no reason to think that one giant tote company would have prevented the pick six scandal unless it had recognized and closed the technology gap that the scandal revealed. Size does not necessarily produce sagacity.

What racing needs more than one tote company is one strong, resolute, unified organization determined to write and enforce rules that transcend state and provincial borders.

Even then problems can occur, as in Canada last week when an all-powerful federal governing body mandated an ill-conceived ban of superfectas along with pick fours and sixes. But in that case there was one organization to deal with, and rational discussion with it quickly brought reason, reconsideration, and relief.

Until all of racing operates with state-of-the-art technology and uniform rules, no amount of nails or hammering will keep the barn door closed. Or convince the public - betting and non-betting - that the door is in fact secure.