08/07/2003 11:00PM

Listen up, racing: Weneednewrules

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DEL MAR, Calif. - On his new HBO show, "Real Time," comedian/social commentator Bill Maher offers a segment he calls "New Rules," during which sacred cows are butchered, braised, and served up with relish. If only he would take a look at horse racing.

* New Rule 1 - Nomorenames-runtogetherwithoutspacesbetweenthewords. Please. Col. E.R. Bradley started it with Bymeabond. Mike Pegram has institutionalized it with an array of double entendres and inside jokes. It works for him, but just barely. Now it has become a plague on the eyes and ears. Even lines from Grateful Dead tunes would be preferable.

* New Rule 2 - Uniform strike zone. If horse racing is to become a truly national game once again, with the popularity to match, it does not need a national marketing campaign. Regional tracks do just fine with their local markets. What racing needs is a licensing system that is valid everywhere (state governments need to be lobbied hard), stewards trained in consistent standards and practices (makes too much sense), and medication rules that do not change by simply crossing state lines (this must come true).

* New Rule 3 - Fire the "handicapped," and put racing secretaries out of their misery.

It has become painfully clear that the ancient art of assigning weights for major handicap races has no value in these modern times. Current practitioners have abandoned all pretense, allowing handicap weights to become either irrelevant or embarrassing. The separation of racing office and marketing department, once an honored value, has crumbled.

Tom Robbins, Del Mar's vice president of racing, drove the final nail into the handicapping coffin this week when he assigned Azeri 127 pounds for the Clement Hirsch Handicap on Sunday. His none-too-subtle mandate was to keep Azeri in town for the race, for the pleasure of Del Mar fans and the enhancement of Del Mar's business. Mission accomplished.

Never mind that Azeri carried the same 127 in winning the Vanity Handicap last month at Hollywood Park, or that she has won five straight races - four of them handicaps - since winning the 2002 Hirsch Handicap under 126. By today's standards, 127 is a serious load.

Still, Robbins surely cringed when he heard that Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux, called him "the best racing secretary in the country" upon the announcement of the 127. The highweight is not supposed to be happy. The assistant principal is not supposed to be popular. Robbins, to his credit, took the compliment with a large dose of salt.

"Yes, and tomorrow I'll tick her off and I'll be the worst," he noted.

Racing secretaries everywhere hew to a kinder, gentler handicapping these days, especially when it comes to retaining the stars of the game. There are exceptions, of course, and they stick out like a tuxedo at a barn dance. When Hollywood Park's Martin Panza upped Azeri two pounds for the Vanity after she won the Milady, he was practically accused of cruelty to animals and put on the PETA watch list.

Handicaps, as stated here many times before, have become archaic components of a sport that is already difficult enough to explain to the casual fan. And while racing must retain elements of its past to perpetuate its undeniable charm, some of the baggage is just plain useless.

The name itself is a turn-off. The outside world hears Santa Anita "Handicap" and immediately thinks "differently abled." Anyway, the verb "to handicap" already has an attractive definition. It means, quite simply, the process of analyzing the entrants of a race and creating a winning wager. Handicapping is a good thing.

Robbins acknowledged that there is a movement in the land to eliminate handicaps from the list of graded races, or at least from the list of races deemed Grade 1. For that to be a viable solution, one must first trust the formula by which races receive their grades. This reporter, for one, does not.

Furthermore, history has proven that weight spreads can make for interesting races. If a race like the Hirsch were weight-for-age (which translates to level weights when 3-year-olds are not involved), trainers and jockeys would be making their plans for second and third money to Azeri. As it stands, there will be mischievous support on Sunday for Sister Girl Blues, the Vanity runner-up, who gets in with young John McKee and 109 pounds. That's about a bowling ball less than the favorite.

A better option might be to reform the system of assigning weights. When it comes to the most important races - okay, graded races - remove the responsibility from the house racing secretary, so conflicted by his paycheck, and place it in the hands of an independent national board. That way, the nation's best horses would awaken each day carrying their "handicap" weight with them, no matter where they surfaced next.

"That's an interesting concept," Robbins said, "although if you're not careful, it could get a little political."

At the moment, Robbins had more pressing concerns, doing the most important work of his office. It was Friday morning, and "the best racing secretary in the country" was in the usual struggle to fill a quality Del Mar program for Sunday. At least the Clement Hirsch was good with five, including the 2002 Horse of the Year.

"That's one race down," Robbins said. "Now we need eight more."