03/22/2002 12:00AM

New York's absurd anachronism


NEW YORK - If you were thinking about going to Aqueduct or betting its races Sunday or a week from Sunday, forget it. New York's tracks will be shuttered these two days because of an antiquated law that has become an offensive anachronism.

By statute, there can be no racing in New York on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday. Citizens of the Empire State can do just about anything else they would do on a normal Sunday, such as drink, visit the local X-rated cinema, or play the slots at the upstate Native American casino, but racing is forbidden.

New York must think itself morally superior to every other state in the union. No one else is shutting down Palm Sunday, and if you have an out-of-state phone account you can bet on the Explosive Bid from the Fair Grounds, the Orchid at Gulfstream, or the Crystal Water at Santa Anita. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be watching and betting on the Academy Awards Sunday night, but nine races at Aqueduct wouldn't be kosher.

So why New York and why Palm Sunday? No one's shutting down for Passover next Thursday, and the Wood Memorial will be run April 13 despite that being Baisakhi, the Hindu New Year. Looking ahead on the NYRA stakes schedule, the Kingston Handicap will be run on Buddha Day, May 26; the Acorn on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 7; the Schuylerville on Mormon Pioneer Day, July 24; the Woodward on Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 7.

By any standard - common sense, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, inconsistency with other states, the singling out of horse racing - the prohibition on Palm and Easter Sunday racing is absurd, indefensible, and should be stricken from the scrolls of the law. The domination of state racing and politics by a single privileged ethnic bloc no longer exists.

The roadblock is that there does not appear to be a single politician who is willing to have his name attached to a repealing bill. In the circus of pandering that passes for political leadership in New York, it would be the political equivalent of sponsoring a measure to lower the drinking age to 11 or ban Mother's Day.

NYRA is not going to press the point and risk offending a single legislator whose vote it may need for a franchise renewal down the road. The state's Off Track Betting corporations - the people who offer Turf Paradise instead of Del Mar and Keeneland so they can charge higher takeout and pay lower commissions - normally can be counted on to lobby for venal self-interest, but they're all political appointees too and won't put their sponsors on the hot seat.

Plenty of attorneys are horseplayers. Perhaps what we need is one who will go to court and claim his civil rights and his ability to pursue his livelihood are being violated. Any volunteers?

Takeout talk

While New York stands alone on the wrong side of this issue, it stands on the side of the angels when it comes to reducing takeout. The reduction of straight takeout to 14 percent and two-horse takeout to 17.5 percent last summer is showing the long-term success that economists predicted. The return of an additional $25 million to bettors has prompted a 10 percent growth in handle this winter.

That makes Keeneland's reluctant decision to restore its previous 19 percent takeout rate on exotic bets for the spring meeting that begins April 5 all the more unfortunate, but the track had no choice. Too many outlets simply refused to handle Keeneland at a revolutionary 16 percent rake on all wagers.

Track officials say they still support the concept, and even the restored rates are among the best in the country. Management is showing some genuine good will by offering its pick six during this meeting at a dazzlingly low 12 percent, compared to 25 percent in many jurisdictions.

Nice idea, wrong pool. Pick sixes are paid out to so relatively few players and so sporadically that the move can't possibly spur reinvestment. Also, it is the one pool where randomizing factors routinely skew payouts by more than 12 percent. No one will even notice that a pick six that would have paid $3,000 last year will pay $3,520 this year. A better model would have been Laurel, where a drop to 14 percent on the pick four has paid off nicely for both customers and the track.