11/30/2001 12:00AM

Parlez-vous horse racing?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Let's at least agree on this. Horse racing is saddled with a strange vocabulary that does not always translate well into the modern vernacular.

Races are measured in furlongs, for instance, which comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon "furh" - a furrow - and "lang" - meaning long, a furrow in those days being the eighth part of a mile, or 40 rods.

Racing has a championship event called the Distaff, a word that traces to the Low German "diesse," which is the flax, or the oakum, tied to a staff from which thread is drawn to be spun by the spindle, that is, work done by women.

Such words have a certain charm. As concepts, they are no less confusing than, say, the infield fly rule or icing the puck. Sometimes, though, it seems as if horse racing goes out of its way to render itself incomprehensible. How else can anyone explain medication rules, licensing policies, and the inability to differentiate the Canadian dollar from its more robust American cousin?

Then there is the system of grading major races, as devised by the American Graded Stakes Committee, which is advised by the North American Rating Committee, and funded by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

The original intent of the stakes committee, when it was formed 30 years ago, was to make sense of the American stakes picture as it showed up on the pages of bloodstock sales catalogs. Today, the committee is made up of 10 industry leaders, bright, honest and fair. They perform the thankless task of sifting through a pile of statistical data as high as the Hollywood Park jumbotron just to assign American stakes races with a designation of 1, 2, or 3.

There is much to be said in favor of such a system. Every sport needs structure. Unfortunately, the committee makes its judgments based primarily on data that is, by the committee's own definition, self-perpetuating. This is bad, okay?

Simply stated, stakes races are graded heavily upon the presence of graded stakes winners in past fields. Graded stakes winners become graded stakes winners by running in graded stakes. Stakes receive a grade based upon the presence of graded stakes winners in past fields. I believe this is where we came in.

No self-respecting logician would tolerate such cyclical thinking. Basically, a stakes race trying to make the grade is faced with the same dilemma as the first-time job seeker. You can't get hired without experience, and you can't get experience without getting hired.

Russell Jones, who has been the chairman of the committee for the past five years, recognized this fundamental glitch. During his tenure, he has brought more subjective evaluation to the process through the work of the Rating Committee, which is made up of racing secretaries who monitor the American product from week to week.

"I think we've come a long way," Jones said. "The Rating Committee is basically evaluating horse against horse. They have a horse, say, that has consistently run at a certain level. When they put him in with another group of horses, they figure out if those horses are above or below that level, and make adjustments accordingly."

In fact, there is no good reason why the data pile should not be thrown out completely, leaving the work of the Rating Committee to stand as the preferred method for grading races. Jones and his committee could not quite cut the cord, however, which led to the silliness of the Jim Dandy Stakes, and the looming prospect of the Scorpion virus.

In 2001, the Jim Dandy was granted Grade 1 status. The data indicated that the race had reached Grade 1 level, even though the most casual observer could figure out that the race was merely intended as a prep race for a larger prize, namely the Travers. The committee deferred to its faulty data, but also issued the warning that the grading was tenuous. No one should have been surprised when the grade for the 2002 running of the Jim Dandy was reduced to 2.

Fine, but guess what? Scorpion, winner of the one and only Grade 1 Jim Dandy, is has now been let loose in the data matrix as a Grade 1 winner. As such, he will have a dramatic statistical impact each time he competes in a stakes event. He may never hit the board again (he hasn't since the Jim Dandy), but that doesn't matter. Statistically speaking, he will be tougher to shed than a bad case of dandruff.

So look for Scorpion to be courted by racetracks everywhere. They should send a van, hang banners on his stall. Never mind if he's 50-1. His mere presence will spike the race data upwards. And the Graded Stakes Committee, when confronted with the data, will be handcuffed by their own flawed system.