03/28/2008 11:00PM

Meet not all fun and games

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Tuesday is April Fool's Day. Time to send in the clowns.

"I bet on a horse at ten-to-one. It didn't come in until half-past five." Henny Youngman said that. Ba-dum-bum.

"A racetrack is a place where windows clean people." Thank you, Danny Thomas.

"I met with an accident on the way to the track; I arrived safely." That was Joe E. Lewis.

When it comes to gambling, though, nobody could top W.C. Fields, who gave us not only "horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people," but also "Lady Godiva put everything she had on a horse."

"Is this a game of chance?" Fields, in character, was asked in a movie.

"Not the way I play it, no."

All those comics are gone, but the sentiments linger, especially as Santa Anita escapes March relatively unscathed and moves gingerly into its final three weeks, highlighted by what figures to be an exciting Santa Anita Derby next Saturday. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

But even on the best days - like the Japan family festival day of March 29, complete with Taiko drummers and sushi al fresco - it is tempting to treat the meet so far as one long, tasteless, impractical joke, perpetrated by a malevolent deity with a twisted sense of humor. How else do you explain . . .

o Eleven days lost and millions spent and squandered because of the failure of the brand new Cushion Track synthetic surface to handle old-fashioned California rain.

o The rise and painful fall of Rafael Bejarano, who took the riding colony by storm in his first full West Coast meet and had clawed his way to the top of the standings, only to be sidelined indefinitely by a fractured vertabra in a March 13 accident.

o A dramatic decline in ontrack business, due not only to the racing disruptions of January and Feburary, but also a result of a general economy that is either in a recession, or doing a very good impression of one.

o The ongoing bad news from the Magna Entertainment home office in Canada, which had to announce losses of $43 million during the fourth quarter of 2007 (compared to $12 million during the corresponding quarter of 2006). Santa Anita, the jewel in the Magna Entertainment crown, figured to at least make the first quarter of 2008 look better. Not now.

Injury and illness are always part of the racing process, but it was hard to go the whole Santa Anita meet without seeing Country Star, perhaps the best 3-year-old filly in the land, her 2008 debut delayed by fever. And of all the admirable 3-year-old Derby prospects to emerge, none was more impressive than Crown of Thorns, winner of the Robert Lewis Memorial Stakes, who made an early exit after suffering a stress fracture.

"The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet," wrote Damon Runyon, who was not really going for a laugh. Nor was Heywood Broun, who sardonically noted, "The urge to gamble is so universal and its practice is so pleasurable, that I assume it must be evil."

These are hopeful notions, in their own way. Silver linings could be ahead, with the promise of a Breeders' Cup in October, offering at least a wish that Santa Anita's traumatic woes of early 2008 will soon fade into fuzzy memory. Besides, how can there be too much pessimism when the following also occurred during the meet?

o As part of an ongoing promotion, two lucky fans found themselves clutching free "mystery vouchers," each worth a fat $10,000. That qualifies as a good day.

o On March 15, as part of the long St. Patrick's Day weekend, John Placzankis, a loyal customer, nailed a ringer for a million dollars in a horseshoe pitching contest. The prize for the St. Pat's Pitch was insured, which means Santa Anita got away with an entertaining novelty story for the price of the insurance premium.

o Odds were against it, but dedicated horseplayer James Micheil bucked those odds on March 24 when he played a $216 pick-six ticket and was the only one to hit. Because he was at the track, Micheil also won a 2008 Chevrolet Corvette, in jet black, which had been on display and up for grabs since opening day. The $131,295 pick-six payoff figures to go a long way toward gas.

Marketing vice president Allen Gutterman has one more Corvette to give away in the same deal. This one is blue, in case that impacts anyone's pick-six handicapping. In the meantime, Gutterman's got his thinking cap on overdrive, trying to come up with more ideas that put sweet bonanzas in the hands of fans while distracting them from Santa Anita's business woes.

"I'm thinking of a hole-in-one contest," Gutterman mused, just spitballing. "We could put the hole at the finish line, and let them take their shots from down the stretch. So what do you think? How far a shot should it be?"

Fore.