03/15/2002 12:00AM

Room for future improvement

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NEW YORK - The Kentucky Derby Future Wager is exactly the kind of bet the racing industry should devise more often. It is an intriguing wager on its own and drives customer interest not only in the Derby but in dozens of prep races throughout the spring.

It has the potential for spectacular growth beyond the current pools, but only if two fundamental changes are made: Rescheduling when the pools are open, and adding more betting interests than the current 24.

The pools' closing times have become a particularly annoying and confusing issue this year, and it has to be turning customers away from the wager. Currently, each of the three pools opens on a Thursday and closes at 5:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. The problem is that in Pool 1, Feb. 14-17, the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds was run at 5:42 p.m. Sunday, 12 minutes after the pool closed. Pool 2 opened Thursday and closes at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, before the San Felipe at Santa Anita.

In Pool 1 this meant bettors could figure Saturday's Fountain of Youth results into their Future bets but not Repent's important seasonal debut the next day. This weekend, Saturday's Florida Derby can be considered, and bettors will get less than an hour to include Sunday's Gotham Stakes into their calculations, but Siphonic's crucial performance in the San Felipe misses the cut.

It's "fair" in that every bettor plays by the same rules, but it's unnecessary. Why couldn't the pools stay open for another hour or so to accommodate the later races? The Easterners who are playing this bet are likely to be staying after their live racing to watch these simulcasts. Another solution is to make the Futures available on every legitimate account-wagering system and leave the pools open until midnight Sunday, which would open up the bet to the play-from-home crowd.

As the bet is now set up, with important preps being run on Saturday and Sunday of each pool, you have to be a certifiable idiot to bet before Sunday. Why would anyone touch the pool this weekend until after the Florida Derby and the Gotham have been run? It's like betting on a race while only looking at half the field's past performances. You have to think that people who bet on Friday or early Saturday are confused, thinking they are getting locked in at the current odds at the time of their bet.

The limitation of 24 betting interests because of totalisator technology may have been excusable when the bet was introduced but it is unacceptable two years later. The tote companies keep claiming that complex and expensive programming would be required to change. This seems like a completely lazy response, given that they have perfectly good technology for handling more than 1,000 combinations on a single race every day in trifectas and superfectas. There has to be a way to assign each of the 500 or so Triple Crown nominees a three-digit betting number. Bettors would grasp the concept in an instant, and this is hardly without precedent. When you make any sports bet in Las Vegas, you go to the window and bet on a three-digit code, not on Duke or the Lakers.

Making every nominee a separate betting interest would at least double the popularity of the Futures. Horseplayers would take all sorts of flyers on 400-1 shots they've been watching at their local tracks, and owners and trainers would get seriously involved if they could back their own horses at triple-digit prices.

Gulfstream's mistake

These changes should be no-brainers. So should the course of action have been last Sunday at Gulfstream when the final race of the day was switched from grass to dirt shortly before post time and long after bettors had invested a quarter-million dollars in daily doubles, pick threes, and a pick six ending in that race. For the purpose of those multirace bets, the finale should have been excluded and considered an "all" race, meaning the double would be paid to those who chose the winner in the first half, the pick three paid as a double to those with the first two legs, and the pick six as a pick five to the one bettor who had made it that far. For the purpose of those bets, the race should have been considered "no race."

The incident had nothing to do with jockeys and their safety and everything to do with writing and enforcing intelligent parimutuel rules. Enlightened tracks will take the incident as a cue to make sure that they have the proper regulations in place and the discretion to enforce them in a similar situation.