12/05/2003 12:00AM

Lump of coal is really a gift


It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Aqueduct on Friday, and not just because the horses in the first race were dashing through the snow before the rest of the card and the entire Saturday program were canceled. Published reports in two newspapers suggested that Christmas may come early for New York racing this year in the form of a long-awaited deal between federal prosecutors and the New York Racing Association.

Normally, the news that a corporation and several of its former officers are going to be indicted for conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion would seem more like a stocking full of coal than a shiny new bicycle, but it gets better. According to law-enforcement sources quoted in the reports, the indictments will be filed any day now but NYRA itself will not be prosecuted. Instead, under an arrangement called deferred prosecution, the association will be spared if it continues to show good-faith efforts to clean up its operation and commits no further offenses.

Presumably, this means that MGM Mirage could resume its construction of a video lottery terminal casino at Aqueduct, perhaps in time to trigger a legislated renewal of the NYRA franchise until 2013. This deal would bring an end to months of uncertainty about NYRA's fate that have effectively paralyzed the sport in New York.

It can't happen soon enough. Last Saturday was what is supposed to be Aqueduct's biggest day until April's Wood Memorial - the Holidayfest card featuring the Cigar Mile, Remsen, and Demoiselle. It is usually a last hurrah for the New York racing season and a rare day when a New York track seems lively and crowded, but this year the place was a tomb.

The announced attendance under clear skies was 5,954, perhaps the smallest gathering in the annals of American racing ever to witness a program with a Grade 1 and two Grade 2 stakes. On a day when the dining room has been packed and buzzing in previous years, plenty of prime tables were empty. The card attracted over $11 million in handle nationwide, but only $1.3 million of that was bet ontrack, a figure that also includes NYRA One phone wagers.

Months of negotiations between track officials and various government entities over whether there would even be a NYRA going forward have drained the life and energy from the operation. Fearful employees and besieged officials have been walking around for months looking like they were on their way to the electric chair. Promotion of the product has virtually ceased.

NYRA's true deficiencies have nothing to do with petty theft by mutuel clerks, but with the growing disconnect between a generally excellent racing product and seriously deficient facilities and customer incentives, issues that have only languished under the current paralysis. New York's tracks offer antiquated and inadequate amenities for simulcast betting. Third-rate tracks and state fairs provide more comfortable and inviting places to spend a day playing the races. Five years after receiving state approval to offer a customer-rewards program, albeit one without cash rebates, New York has yet to institute one.

Perhaps the removal of the sword that has been poised over NYRA's head for most of 2003 will allow the association to get back to business. It is time to move on, to finish and open the VLT operation, and to install a permanent management team that can restore credibility and vitality to New York racing and develop a plan to use VLT revenues for the good of the game and its customers.

Sprint champ who rarely sprinted?

The Holidayfest card featured two important performances. Congaree made an interesting case for himself as champion sprinter with a Cigar Mile romp that earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 120 and some overdue admiration as a durable and brilliant racehorse. He would be a somewhat unconventional sprint champion with nothing shorter than seven furlongs on his resume, but his victory over Aldebaran at that distance in the Carter and the overall quality of his campaign make him the most deserving winner.

Read the Footnotes' Remsen triumph probably won't win him the 2-year-old title since he lacks a Grade 1 triumph, but I'm a rationalization or two away from voting for him. He's the only 2-year-old colt with two graded victories at a mile or more, and his Remsen was extraordinary. He ran nearly two full seconds faster than Ashado did winning the Demoiselle, earning a Beyer of 105 that is not only the best of the year in his division but also 13 points higher than Action This Day's winning Beyer against a dreadful Breeders' Cup Juvenile field.

Dismissing Read the Footnotes as a classic candidate because he's by champion sprinter Smoke Glacken could be a mistake. His overall pedigree says distance shouldn't be a problem, he's already flourished at a mile and an eighth, and he has five months of development ahead to handle a 10th furlong by Derby Day. Yet six days after the Remsen, he was still sitting at 50-1 in some Las Vegas future books. We've all had worse ideas at shorter prices.