08/20/2003 11:00PM

Scratch rule's time has passed

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The rule allowing horses to scratch out of stakes races up to 45 minutes before post time is a disaster waiting to happen in the era of multirace betting. The wait may be over as soon as Saturday at Saratoga.

The Travers Stakes, which once looked like the race of the year and one of Saratoga's greatest days ever, is instead shaping up as a public-relations nightmare. Track officials had envisioned a dramatic rematch between Triple Crown warriors Empire Maker and Funny Cide, with the latter's hometown supporters turning out in record numbers to cheer the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby.

Be careful what you wish for. Empire Maker and Funny Cide are indeed in the Travers entries, but the chances that both will run appear slim and none. Empire Maker is literally off his feed and was declared doubtful Thursday morning by Bobby Frankel. Funny Cide has had just one half-mile workout since his dull performance in the Haskell, from which he emerged with a fever and an elevated white-cell count. The popular gelding isn't entirely right and trainer Barclay Tagg clearly is not eager to run him, but he and the local ownership group bought themselves a few days to hope for a sudden recovery by entering him Wednesday - with the knowledge they can still pull out as late as 5:39 p.m. Saturday.

By then, the droves of locals will have piled into the track, perhaps in historic numbers, perhaps in response to what amounts to false advertising. What a wonderful Saratoga moment that would be: "Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen, in the 11th race, the Travers Stakes, you may now scratch No. 6, Funny Cide."

That wouldn't be the only scratch out of the 11th. Bobby Frankel entered both Empire Maker and Peace Rules, but just one of them will run, and he technically doesn't have to say which one until the afternoon's first nine races are in the books. Congrats also was entered but will only run if Empire Maker scratches. Which Travers will we see - a five-horse field led by Empire Maker, a six-horse field without either of the headliners, or a seven-horse field led by Peace Rules and Funny Cide?

Listening to the double-talk surrounding Funny Cide won't help you handicap an answer. Tagg had been saying earlier this week that Funny Cide was "highly unlikely" and "very unlikely" to run in the Travers. Then at entry time he said the gelding was 75 percent likely to run, but appended that statement with a unique interpretation of probability.

"I would say there is a 75 percent chance he will run," he said. "I would say that 75 percent is highly unlikely when you're dealing with horse racing."

Not really. Seventy-five percent means far more likely than not - not "highly unlikely." It is supposed to mean there is a 3-out-of-4 likelihood he will run. Tagg is a cautious pessimist by nature, but he can't have it both ways - either Funny Cide is highly unlikely or he's 75 percent likely, and customers deserve to know which it is before they start their cars or place their bets.

In addition to the extra 10,000 or so locals who may make a trip to Saratoga for an afternoon of disappointment, there are even more bettors both ontrack and around the country who could be playing in the dark. What are you supposed to do in the pick six that begins with the sixth race or the $500,000 guaranteed pick four that starts an hour later? If you bet on Funny Cide, you could end up actually getting him, or, if he scratches, maybe Empire Maker or maybe Peace Rules as the substitute post-time favorite. That's called Lotto, not horse racing.

The rule allowing a scratch so close to post time for stakes races is a vestige of an era in which the most exotic bet on the card was the daily double. No one would suggest that a horse be forced to run if he suffers an illness or injury on race day, or if the skies open and change the track surface into one that a horse cannot handle. In the absence of any such late development, however, horses should be announced as in or out of a stakes race at the same time as every other race on the card - an hour before the first race of the day.