09/29/2003 12:00AM

New rule gets mixed reviews


ARCADIA, Calif. - A rule allowing trainers to have up to three starters in maiden special weight races was implemented in California on Sunday but drew sharp criticism from some horsemen who were unaware of the change until entries were announced.

In the first race on Sunday's opening day of the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, trainer Bob Baffert had three of the seven starters in a $45,000 race over 1 1/16 miles.

Baffert said he was made aware of the rule change last Friday, when entries were taken.

Roger Licht, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, said the rule change was implemented 10 days before the start of Sunday's meeting, but was unsure why word did not reach horsemen until last Friday.

When asked if blame could be assigned to the racetrack or the board for not informing horsemen, Licht said, "Maybe both of us."

Racing officials said they received confirmation on Friday morning that the rule was being enacted.

"We were aware it was brewing, but we hadn't heard the status of it," said director of racing Mike Harlow.

The issue was discussed by the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers during Del Mar but was not implemented after being rejected by the stewards. The change was made administratively by the board after the Del Mar meeting concluded.

Trainer Richard Mandella won Sunday's first race with Action This Day. Mandella said he was not aware of the change until he saw Sunday's entries.

"I thought it was a mistake. I don't care what the rule is, but I have a real problem with changing the rules behind closed doors and not letting anyone know," Mandella said. "You've got to go through procedures and announce it to the industry."

Mandella had one starter in Sunday's maiden race. He said at Del Mar there was an occasion when he would have run three maidens, if allowed.

Licht defended the decision to implement the rule, which will be permitted on a temporary basis through the end of the Oak Tree meeting on Nov. 9.

"We considered it at Del Mar, and we decided to try it for this meeting," Licht said. "There are two reasons to try it: to increase the field size and increase the handle, and to develop young horses."

The new rule will only apply to maiden special weight races. Trainers are already permitted to have more than two starters in stakes.

Baffert has campaigned for the rule change in recent months. He said the rule allows him to keep additional starters in California.

"I go out and hustle and bring horses to the state and I want to get races for them," Baffert said. "I want to run them or I have to send them out of town. California needs to make changes to get full fields."