01/04/2002 1:00AM

Simulcast bettors deserve better TV

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WASHINGTON - The advent of full-card simulcasting was greeted with a barrage of complaints from horseplayers. In this new era, most bettors don't watch races live or hear a public-address system; they sit in front of television monitors that are their sole source of information. Yet tracks at first did a miserable job putting races and betting information on the screen.

Gradually the industry has improved its TV presentation. Almost all tracks have now adopted color-coded saddle cloths (No. 1 wears red, No. 2 blue, etc.), so that viewers can readily distinguish one horse from another. Tracks have learned to flash information about late changes - such as horses being scratched at the starting gate - on the screen conspicuously. Most tracks show both parts of a stable entry in the list of horses' odds, so bettors can see immediately that No. 1 is running while No. 1A is scratched. And, overall, on-screen graphics are much improved.

But the quality of TV coverage is still uneven. Many tracks still fail to recognize the needs of simulcast bettors while others have come up with excellent innovations that should be emulated everywhere.

The most important part of any simulcast is, of course, the race. Most tracks have adopted the use of a split screen, showing a close-up of the leaders on the bottom half of the picture and a broad pan shot of the whole field on top. Typically, they show a single shot as the horses leave the gate, switch to the split screen as the field runs down the backstretch, and revert to a single shot for the stretch run.

Laurel Park in Maryland, Hawthorne (near Chicago), and a few other tracks have improved this system. They begin coverage of a race with a split screen, half of it with the normal pan shot and half with a head-on view of the gate. This is extremely valuable. More trouble occurs during the first few strides of a race than at any other stage, and the head-on shot allows fans to see who is getting jostled, bumped, or squeezed. After the first few strides, the normal split-screen shots appear.

No aspect of race coverage still provokes as many complaints as the stretch run. When a horse has a commanding lead in the stretch, the camera frequently puts him in a close-up shot while ignoring the rest of the field and any battle that might be occurring for second place. As a filly named Leveche ran away with a race at Laurel recently, she was the only horse in the picture during the last 13 seconds of the race. This is senseless when most viewers have bet exactas and trifectas and are vitally interested in the identity of the second- and third-place finishers.

Woodbine has found the right way to deal with runaway winners. When a horse has a commanding lead in the stretch, the Canadian track switches to an isolated camera shot, putting a close-up of the leader in a box at the bottom of the screen while showing the rest of the field in a pan shot. It is such a sensible solution that it should be universally adopted in this country.

Although racetracks have done a generally better job of displaying information, many still fail to understand that simulcast bettors need information delivered in a fast, efficient manner.

When bettors are marking down the scratches and changes at the tracks they are following, they want to do it quickly so they can get down to business. But at Laurel and many other tracks, the changes appear on the bottom of the screen - one . . . at . . . a . . . time . . . very . . . slowly. A fan may stare for seven seconds at a single line informing him that No. 3 in the first race is one pound overweight, and he could doze off before he finds out who is scratched in the ninth. Some tracks have learned that it is best to show all the changes for a race at once, and move from race to race rapidly.

After a race, bettors want to see the payoffs, the replay, as well as the head-on view of the race, and the probable payoffs for doubles, pick threes, etc. in the upcoming event. Then they can turn their attention to another track. But most television presentations become very inefficient after the race. They waste a minute or two showing the winner galloping past the finish line and back to the winner's circle while the race is being made official. Then they will spend time showing the members of the Boca Raton Golden Age Club gathering in the winner's circle for a photograph.

This may seem inconsequential, but a couple of wasted minutes nine times a day robs a player of valuable time if he is trying to follow several tracks simultaneously.

Beulah Park and Thistledown in Ohio, which last year ran their races in rapid-fire succession, found the way to make every minute count. As soon as a race has been run, they show a head-on replay while the results are being made official. Then they quickly post the results and show another replay, with the payoffs superimposed on a corner of the screen. Not a moment is wasted.

If racetracks continue to tweak their TV products in such an intelligent fashion, America's simulcast bettors may one day be content.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post