08/12/2004 11:00PM

New York board drops ball

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Bettors playing Saratoga were howling in the rain Thursday, demanding the heads of track officials after it was announced that the sixth race was being taken off the grass as the horses were being loaded into the gate for the fourth. The players had every right to be furious at the time, but there was more to blame than a tardy announcement.

The problem with the late surface-switch for the sixth race only moments before betting closed for the fourth was that the fourth race was the first leg of both a pick three on races 4 through 6 and the pick six on races 4 through 9. So the people who bet more than $160,000 into those pools were playing the sixth as if it were a grass race and told it would be run on the main track when it was too late to exchange or cancel their tickets.

The failure to delay the start and keep the betting open for another few minutes was the New York Racing Association's fault, and track officials acknowledged that the next day.

"What we should have done was give people another three to five minutes to change their tickets," said Bill Nader, NYRA's senior vice president. "We've told everyone to proceed that way in the future."

NYRA, however, had attempted to address this exact situation months ago. On March 11, NYRA submitted a proposed rule change to the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. Under NYRA's sensible proposal, a race taken off the grass after the start of a pick four or pick six would be declared an "all race" for the purposes of those bets, with any selection in the switched-surface race counting as a winner.

"We never received a response," Nader said Friday of the March 11 proposal. "We resubmitted it again yesterday after what happened and hope it will be recognized now."

As it turned out, not many people were hurt by the way the switched-surface race turned out Thursday. There were no additional scratches after the shift to the main track, so no bettor was switched to a horse he didn't want. And the horse who would have been a heavy favorite in the grass race off his turf form, Dark Equation, turned out to be equally adept in the slop, winning by 9 1/2 lengths. So people who singled Dark Equation in their pick threes or the pick six were unscathed.

Still, the proper thing to do would have been to declare the race an "all" for pick six purposes, as NYRA's rule change would have mandated. It is inexcusable that the racing board did not act on the request before Saratoga, where something like this happens every year amid the sudden monsoons of August in the Adirondacks.

While NYRA was at fault for not delaying the start of the fourth, it did the right thing in two other incidents that angered some bettors in the preceding days. On Wednesday, Ed Bowen, the lesser half of a Todd Pletcher-trained entry, was scratched when he ran off in the paddock, meaning that the remaining half of the entry, Arcturus, ran for purse money only. When Arcturus was a narrow winner but the parimutuels paid off on the runner-up, some people who had bet Arcturus were furious to get a refund rather than 5-1.

It's frustrating to pick a winner and not be rewarded, but the purse-money-only rule is the fairest possible thing. Suppose it had been Arcturus who was scratched and people who bet on him were now stuck with Ed Bowen at a short price? You don't want the stewards deciding which half of an entry handicappers are betting on. The rule is a good one.

So was NYRA's decision to refund all wagers on Colonial Bay in last Saturday's first race. Colonial Bay was even money, broke 10 lengths behind the field, and ran extremely well to finish eighth, beaten just 2 1/4 lengths. Most fans who bet him would have shrugged it off as one of those things that happens at the racetrack, but the stewards studied tapes of the start, decided that an assistant starter had his hand on Colonial Bay when the gates opened, and declared him a non-starter. Bettors, myself included, who had the $150 exacta of 9-2 Rolled Stocking and 20-1 Forget the Judge were disappointed to see them go down to 5-2 and 11-1 and the exacta decrease to a paltry $59.50, but it was the right call.

NYRA had to refund $997,000 in straight and exotic wagers that had involved Colonial Bay, sacrificing nearly $200,000 in commissions for the track and purses, but acted in the public's best interest. Here's hoping that the racing board will do the same before the next midday storm at Saratoga.