06/04/2001 12:00AM

Remember when getting there was half the fun?


NEW YORK - There is no question that the horseplayer of today has it much better than he did 30 years ago. Things like Beyer Speed Figures, trainer statistics, and class codes in Daily Racing Form past performances; full card simulcasting; telephone and Internet wagering; and live race telecasts into people's homes were unheard of in the early 1970's.

But I wonder, is the horseplayer having as much fun playing the game as 30 years ago?

Today, nothing is easier than logging onto the Internet to get instant race results. But does the relatively new horseplayer take this mouse click for granted? Does he miss the excited anticipation of driving to the highest point in the Boston area in the hopes of tuning in a New York radio station that carries New York race results?

Little matches the comfort and convenience of today's ontrack and offtrack teletheaters, where you can have your own spot to spread your Form, and your own television to tune in whatever signal you're interested in. But are the partitions between these individual cubicles offering privacy at the expense of camaraderie?

And there just don't seem to be as many racetrack characters around as there were years ago. There aren't as many guys around like Crazy Carmen, who was certain that God and everyone who held a jockey's license were conspiring to make a loser out of him, and who never saw a race that wasn't fixed, even the rare ones he cashed. I remember one evening at Green Mountain in Vermont when Carmen lost another "fixed" race. He stood up, his booming voice reverberating off the otherwise silent clubhouse walls, shouting "Don't you maple sap suckers know when you're being taken?" I also remember discreetly but hastily trying to get to the exit before the locals woke up and realized they were being insulted.

Today, we can sit in our cubicle, stare at our 13-inch screen and play Monmouth in the afternoon and Mountaineer at night. We can make up all kinds of exotic matches of tracks to play. But, is it as fulfilling, or as thrilling, as it was to make a day-night doubleheader, when all you needed was a couple of bucks, a gassed-up car, and the desire?

I grew up in Boston, and around this time of year when the summer evenings start to glow, there were so many options. You could do Suffolk in the afternoon and Lincoln Downs or Narragansett in Rhode Island at night. After Rockingham Park in New Hampshire opened, you could do The Rock in the afternoon and Lincoln or 'Gansett at night. Or you could do a doubleheader of The Rock and Scarborough Downs in Maine, where the mosquitoes were so big they could have worn saddles.

Later in the summer, the Massachusetts fair season would open, and back then it was quite a circuit, from Brockton to Weymouth to Marshfield to Northampton to Great Barrington to Berkshire Downs. The last three were out in western Massachusetts, and you could couple an afternoon at one of those places, which always included several trips to the Jack's French Fries stand - vinegar and salt, please, and only at Jack's - with Green Mountain at night. You always had Green Mountain on Sundays. Back then, that was the only track around that raced on Sundays.

Doubleheaders were great, but there was one particular Labor Day when a quadrupleheader was available for the hearty. On Labor Days, Rockingham ran a morning and afternoon card, so on this one Labor Day you started with the morning card at The Rock, moved on to Suffolk for part of their afternoon card, then headed to Marshfield Fair for the tail end of their afternoon card, and then on to Lincoln for the night card. For the record, the money ran out before the will did.

And there were doubleheader permutations that could have been made when all the greyhound and harness tracks were factored in. But those were never considered to be legitimate by me. Only Thoroughbred doubleheaders counted.

Camaraderie? Those doubleheaders fostered it. With anywhere from an hour to a 2 1/2-hour ride to the next destination, there was lots of handicapping and lots of stories swapped about our horrible beats.

All of this came to mind last Friday, driving back from Monmouth Park, where I participated in the first of a series of Form Friday seminars. Sitting in traffic on the Belt Parkway after getting seven in at Monmouth, I thought, "What the hell," and I pointed my car toward Belmont Park. Thanks to a twilight post time, I was able to take in the last two races at Belmont. Later, I told a couple of friends what I did. One asked, "Did you really do that?" Another asked more bluntly, "What are you, nuts?" I actually felt a bit sorry for them. Have they forgotten, or did they ever know, the joy of getting in your car, driving to a track, betting, getting in your car, driving to another track, and betting some more? Though tame by past experience, after my first semi-exotic doubleheader in a while, I felt renewed, invigorated.

After the Belmont Stakes is over, I'm thinking about asking for a couple of days off and putting together maybe a Delaware Park-Charles Town doubleheader, or a Philadelphia Park-Penn National doubleheader, or even another Monmouth-Belmont Friday doubleheader.

Want to go?