08/03/2007 12:00AM

Purse hike restores New York luster

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The next time the New York racing franchise is put up for bid, in the year 2027 or so, whatever blue-ribbon panel is formed to decide what's best for the game should simply look at a time-capsule record of the first week and a half of Saratoga 2007. This has been New York racing as it was meant to be, and should have been before now.

This is not the gloating euphoria of a flush horseplayer; I'm personally still in the red, temporarily of course. Nor is it mere bedazzlement at some of the early performances at the meet, from championship-caliber stakes efforts by Ready's Image and Lawyer Ron to the emergence of possible new stars such as Grasshopper and the thrilling return of Shakespeare. Those racing highlights aside, this has been the most interesting and challenging sustained stretch of world-class racing New Yorkers have seen in a very long time. Of course it has something to do with its being Saratoga, and with perfect weather that has permitted a robust program of grass racing, but much of the excellence stems from a single source: a sharp and long-overdue hike in purses that has attracted full and competitive fields to almost every race.

You can see the magnitude of the increases just by looking at the past performances for any card. The same maiden races that drew fields of eight or nine for a $42,000 purse at Belmont in June are now worth $57,000 and attracting full gates of 12. Overnight stakes races worth $64,000 downstate are getting bigger and deeper fields now that they're worth $80,000 up here.

The entire claiming game has been suddenly rejuvenated, as owners are reaching in and spending with gusto. On Wednesday and Thursday alone here, there were 16 claims for a total of $645,000. When $20,000 claiming fillies are running for $36,000 purses, a single win off the claim pays back the purchase price. The flood of claims is not just the usual traffic involving the rugged old warhorses at the lower levels, but also pricier buys out of races that rarely attract such action: Four $50,000 2-year-olds were haltered from a single maiden-claiming race here Wednesday.

The purse hike was made possible by an underpayment of purses during the long, dreary Aqueduct meeting. Having the same fields of dismal statebreds running in new and cheaper maiden-claiming conditions, instead of pretending they were maiden special weight horses entitled to the same purses offered at Belmont and Saratoga, allowed some stockpiling. A change of leadership at the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association made the tracks and horsemen the allies they are supposed to be rather than constant adversaries and rival bidders. Cynics say that the purse increase was timed to make the New York Racing Association look good during the stretch run of its bid for a franchise renewal. Even if true, it was a "ploy" that has benefited participants and customers alike.

The shame of it is that purses could and should have been this good for a few years now. New York voters approved of slots at state tracks five years ago, and an Aqueduct monopoly on one-armed bandits in New York City could have been funding $100,000 maiden races by now. Instead, the Pataki administration ordered its Lottery Division to tie up routine approvals for NYRA as it sought to steer the franchise elsewhere. Democrats were equally at fault, launching grandstanding investigations of supposed scandal and perfidy at the tracks that amounted to some technical tax-evasion issues involving mutuel clerks betting on the races.

This is not to say that everything is perfect or that things won't turn a little ugly when it inevitably starts raining and we have a few cards with 37 late scratches and unplayable four-horse off-the-turf races. Nor will I risk losing my lifetime membership in the Professional Complainers' Guild, to which all newspaper columnists belong, by failing to mention that NYRA still needs to serve its customers better by straightening out its wagering menu, permitting dime superfectas and other fractional bets, pressing for overdue changes in late-scratch and consolation-payout rules, adding funding options to its account-wagering program, installing the Trakus system, and lobbying for takeout reductions.

For once, though, these seem like achievable enhancements to a game that is working pretty well rather than symptoms of a broken and declining industry.