06/27/2002 11:00PM

So where are the will-pays?


NEW YORK - If you think this weekend has been a busy one in American racing, just wait until you figure out how many parimutuel ways there will be to celebrate the upcoming Independence Day holiday weekend. It's more than enough to make you proud to be both an American and a horseplayer.

In addition to the 1,000 or so individual races and dozens of stakes that will be run from Thursday through Sunday, there are three new national handicapping challenges this year. There's an NTRA Summer Tour Pick Three on Saturday encompassing the United Nations Handicap at Monmouth, the Stars and Stripes Handicap at Arlington, and the Suburban Handicap at Belmont. There's also a Churchill Downs Simulcasting Network National Pick Four on Saturday, which CDSN calls a "28-minute thrill ride" linking the 12th at Calder, the ninth at Arlington, the 11th at Churchill, and the fifth at Hollywood.

Not enough action? You can also bet on races that won't be run until Oct. 26 by playing the new Breeders' Cup Futures Bet on the Breeders' Cup Classic, Distaff, and Sprint. Windows are open for those propositions from Thursday through Sunday.

Is this a great country or what?

It's refreshing to see the industry making marketing and promotional efforts that actually have something to do with racing and wagering. It's also encouraging that the sport is belatedly varying its product line, offering new types of bets the way every successful casino consistently changes its slot machines and table games.

To make these new bets successful, however, tracks and other wagering outlets need to do a much better job of keeping potential players informed about post times, odds, and will-pays. It would be a shame if these innovative offerings failed because of public confusion and a lack of attention to detail, but some recent examples are not encouraging.

On Preakness Day, Pimlico offered a $250,000 guaranteed pick four on some of the early races on the card. After the first three legs, however, probable payoffs were neither announced nor posted on the makeshift infield tote board.

Three weeks later, Belmont offered a daily double linking the Acorn Stakes on a Friday with the Belmont Stakes the next afternoon. Several bettors who are Belmont regulars said they never saw will-pays either during the betting period or anywhere the next day.

Two Saturdays ago was the first NTRA Summer Tour Pick Three, linking the Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont with the Dallas Turf Cup at Lone Star and the Stephen Foster at Churchill. Fans at a variety of sites said later that it was the best-kept secret at their local track or OTB because they never were informed or reminded that the bet existed. Those who did play never saw will-pays.

It's not a simple problem. There are only so many television monitors you can cram into even the most simulcast-friendly facility, and in prime time on a Saturday afternoon there are more than enough signals to fill them all and keep typically understaffed television-truck crews scrambling to keep up.

Still, many tracks need to do a much better job, especially the bigger ones, where simulcasting is all too often an afterthought. Horseplayers are resourceful by necessity and will put up with more than most consumers, but is it too much to expect dedicated, clearly labeled monitors showing odds for national wagering events?

Will-pays are crucial for multirace events and it's mystifying that tracks don't make an extra effort to post them since they can only generate more betting. Players who know exactly what they will collect if they get through the upcoming final leg are far more likely to bet the race separately or hedge their position.

Yet even getting access to simple win odds has been a challenge with special events such as the Kentucky Derby Futures. The new Breeders' Cup Futures could well grow into one of the year's biggest and best wagering propositions (especially if the tote companies would stop dragging their feet and enable more than 24 betting interests for each pool in future years). It's sure to get off to a slow start next weekend because of its novelty, but the start will be anemic unless people have constant access to the odds. Who's going to take a flyer on a race being run more than 100 days in the future without knowing if his horse is 6-1 or 30-1?

It's great that the industry is rolling out some new models. If it shows the customers some price tags, it might really be onto something.