05/31/2001 12:00AM

The odd uncouple: Integrity takes a hit

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It may seem hard to imagine that Maryland horseplayers could become even more cynical and distrustful than they are now, but the state's racing industry is about to take an action sure to enrage and alienate customers. At the urging of the racetracks' management, the Maryland Racing Commission has passed a rule permitting two or more horses with the same trainer in the same race to run as separate betting interests. The change will go into effect as soon as a legislative committee in Annapolis goes through the formality of approving it.

Allowing stablemates to run uncoupled is a reversal of the practice that has prevailed throughout most of the history of Thoroughbred racing. The rationale behind the traditional rule is obvious: If a trainer has, say, a 2-1 shot and an 8-1 shot in the same field, he could decide that he would try to win with one and not the other. But as American racetracks have suffered from a shortage of horses, many have tried to increase the number of betting interests in a race by eliminating such stable entries.

Lou Raffetto Jr., the chief operating officer at Laurel and Pimlico, asked the commission for the change, and he cites a typical situation faced by his racing secretary's office. Pimlico is trying to put on a high-level allowance race, and it draws six entrants - including two from the big stable of Scott Lake, and two more from Dale Capuano. If both entries must be coupled, Pimlico won't run the race because it will have only four betting interests. But with a field of six betting interests, fans get to see a good race and the trainers get to run some of their horses in Maryland instead of shipping them out of town.

Raffetto said uncoupled entries would be permitted only in allowance and high-priced claiming races, not in cheaper competition. The idea behind this limitation is that trainers would be less likely to engage in chicanery in races that offer high purse money (uncoupled entries already are allowed in stakes). "I don't think that would be a fact," Raffetto said, "but I understand it can be perceived. We don't want to give any impression of impropriety."

But the impression of impropriety will exist whenever a trainer has the dominant horses in a small field. Nobody pays much attention if a trainer saddles a pair of 5-1 shots in a field of 12. But if the trainer has the top two contenders in a field of six, he is in a position to dictate the outcome of the race, and bettors will be suspicious regardless of the class of the horses. I saw this two summers ago at Del Mar, where the No. 1 topic of conversation at the track was trainer Bob Baffert and his uncoupled entries.

Because Baffert has such a powerful stable, and California suffers from a shortage of horses, the trainer regularly ran uncoupled entries in small fields. Bettors counted eight occasions when the winner was the horse with the longer odds. In one race, Baffert had a highly regarded 4-5 shot; the trainer's assistant appeared on closed-circuit television and extolled the colt's virtues.

The favorite finished next to last while the winner, at 11-1, was the other Baffert entrant. Even though the horses involved were often high-class youngsters with Kentucky Derby aspirations, bettors were apoplectic every time the worse-looking half of a Baffert entry won.

The decision to allow uncoupled entries in Maryland evokes the often-quoted line by George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Many Marylanders have forgotten that the same rule change was made in 1977-78, when it evoked so much hostility that it was reversed.

In that era, Maryland was dominated by three trainers - Bud Delp, King Leatherbury, and Dick Dutrow - who operated such large stables that they regularly had two leading contenders in a race. When entries were uncoupled, a six-horse field might consist of two Delp runners, two Dutrow runners, and two bums. The insiders were in a position to know who was going to win; if they had been dishonest, they could have arranged the outcome. But even if the trainers weren't conspiratorial, the races regularly stirred bettors' anger.

Delp recalled, "I'm one of the reasons they stopped uncoupled entries. I distinctly remember one day at Pimlico when I had Ronnie Franklin [Delp's No. 1 rider] on an 8-5 shot and R. A. Smith on a 20-1 shot. I knew the 20-1 shot was doing good, and I bet on him. That's an advantage a trainer can get - it doesn't have to be hanky-panky." After the 20-1 shot won, even the stewards were so uneasy with the result that split entries were eventually abandoned.

Maryland racing today isn't much different from the days when the Big Three reigned, except now the Big Two are in control: Lake and Capuano. Their stables are so large and powerful that both rank among the top three race-winning trainers in America this year, and so they will frequently saddle uncoupled entries that include the best horses in a small field.

However, this change in the rules comes at a particularly inopportune time, when most horseplayers are convinced that the use of illegal drugs is out of control in Maryland. In this already paranoid atmosphere, the last thing the sport needs are six-horse fields with uncoupled entries from the state's strongest stables. Racing commissioners and track executives may now believe that allowing such races will benefit the sport, but they will learn otherwise.

? 2001, The Washington Post 2001