01/08/2007 12:00AM

Poker, Polytrack outdid Barbaro

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NEW YORK - With the wire coming up quickly on 2006, what were the year's most important stories in the world of racing?

5. Invasor, Bernardini, and the sheikhs

A mere 364 days ago, Invasor was unknown outside Uruguay and Bernardini was an unraced maiden. Ten months later, they were the nation's top older horse and 3-year-old, and settled the Horse of the Year title in a classic Breeders' Cup Classic showdown.

Besides being an excellent race, it was a fitting intramural finale to a year of unprecedented dominance of America's top races by a single family of owners. Beyond their emergence as champion racehorses, Invasor and Bernardini capped the most successful American campaign yet by the Maktoum family of Dubai, which also won Grade 1 races with Discreet Cat, Dubai Escapade, Henny Hughes, and Jazil.

While it was a charmed year for the Maktoums, expect to see more of the same. With a willingness to write seven-digit checks for sales yearlings and impressive winners, the family now seems poised to be as dominant in the top flight of American racing as it has been in Europe for the last two decades.

4. The NYRA franchise

At the start of the year, a 24-month countdown for the future of New York racing began. Twelve months later, we're back where we started with only a year left to figure it out.

In between, there was high drama, low politics, and plenty of entertaining infighting, provided by the likes of Jared Abruzzese, Joe Bruno, Empire Racing, Excelsior Racing, Alan Hevesi, George Pataki, Tim Smith, Eliot Spitzer, and even Marylou Whitney. The bottom line, though, is that the New York Racing Association has declared bankruptcy and is suing the state, slots at Aqueduct are still at least a year away, and we're no closer to a franchise decision or a legislative overhaul of the game than we were last New Year's Eve.

3. Barbaro

Everyone keeps saying that Barbaro was racing's story of the year, which is true in terms of mass-media and general-interest consumption. He was responsible for racing's only mentions in year-end wrapups in publications such as Time and Newsweek. It remains unclear, however, what if any lasting impact his dramatic tale will have on the game or the industry.

It's nice that people signed big get-well cards and sent him apples and carrots. It would have been nicer still if his story had galvanized the industry to seize the spotlight and all that goodwill to do something on a grand scale to raise additional funds for veterinary research, or to deal with the issue of caring for less valuable and famous racehorses once their careers are over.

2. The poker bust

Racing congratulated itself heartily for retaining its exemptions from new Internet-gambling prohibitions buried in the Safe Port Act of 2006, signed into law Oct. 13. The completely irrelevant and inappropriate insertion of anti-gambling provisions into a port-security bill in the middle of the night showed the fragility of the legal account-wagering and simulcasting laws, without which racing cannot survive.

The bigger lessons of online poker mania in this country seem to have been lost on the racing industry. Racing is now one of the few remaining legal interstate gambling options, and perfectly suited to the online world, but no one in the industry is promoting it as such. Instead, it is alienating existing customers, much less attracting new ones, through its astounding ongoing failure to offer customers the opportunity to place bets and see races from different tracks on the same betting account or television channel.

1. Polytrack

At the start of the year, only Turfway Park was running on an artificial racing surface, and it had no more impact on horseplayers and the sport than the inner track at Aqueduct had for two decades: It seemed a sensible way to proceed with second-tier winter racing in inclement climes. By year's end, Hollywood Park, Keeneland, and Woodbine had all converted to the new surfaces and by the end of next year, Arlington, Del Mar, and Santa Anita will have changed over as well, with major Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup implications.

Horsemen, handicappers, and even breeders are just beginning to understand the profound changes to the game and the breed by racing over these new surfaces. A generation from now - no matter who is running the New York tracks, how people are placing their bets, or how many winners Bernardini or maybe even Barbaro has sired - 2006 may be best remembered as the beginning of a new era in racing due to the racetracks themselves.