06/28/2001 11:00PM

Some things need fixing, some don't


"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is an axiom denied at the fixer's peril. Yet that is exactly what the braintrust at Ascot Racecourse is planning to do.

After having entertained 230,000 people at four sunsplashed days of Royal Ascot last week, track officials have embarked on a plan for a refurbished grandstand that would involve moving the racing surface 42 meters farther from the grandstand and relocating the paddock and the winner's circle.

Many improvements have been made in recent years to the grandstand to handle the increasingly large crowds that attend the Royal Meeting as well as King George Day in late July and the Festival Meeting in late September. While additional changes would be welcome, moving the paddock from its place a hundred yards past the grandstand is probably not one of them.

Ascot's glorious paddock has been immoratlized by a number of renowned artists, most notably the French colorist Raoul Dufy. It is currently a place where horses came be seen to better advantage than at almost any track in the world. Its one drawback is that it is a major hike from the paddock to the betting ring, where a majority of punters get their bets down.

Dennis Erskine-Crum, Ascot's chief executive, is interested in bringing the public closer to the horses. The current lay of the land reflects the time when those in the members' enclosure (the British equivalent of the clubhouse, called the Royal Enclosure during Royal Ascot) were naturally given preference in matters of horse-watching over the commoners in the grandstand.

In Britain's growing spirit of democratization, Erskine-Crum wants to rectify that. He is proposing a new paddock behind the stands, but in destroying what is perhaps the most beautiful paddock in all of racing, he may be making a mistake.

A problem more pressing than the nearly quarter-mile walk between the betting ring and the paddock is the means which Ascot provides for making that hike.

From the grandstand there are just two choices: an outdoor pathway in front of the members' enclosure parallel to the track, or a dingy Victorian-era tunnel which can become bottled up very quickly in both directions on big race days.

Rather than destroying one of the glories of British racing, Ascot officials should make it easier for grandstanders, each of whom was charged an extortionate $66 a day at Royal Ascot, to make their way from the betting ring to the paddock, or vice-versa with greater ease.

This could be accomplished by widening the paths around the sacred Royal Enclosure, or by allowing bookies access to one of the lawns near the paddock. As it stands now, paddock-watchers are just a few yards away from pari-mutuel windows. If the lords of British racing could overcome their antipathy to allowing bookies onto all sections of their racecourses, Ascot might solve one of their very few problems while keeping intact a hallowed piece of history.

Changes of a more important nature are about to be implemented in British racing on the all-important funding front.

After much wrangling over the past year, the British Horseracing Board (BHB) has finally approved a deal with the Go Racing consortium (Arena Leisure, BSkyB, and Channel 4) which would allow the sale of media rights from 49 racecourses to off-course bookmakers.

British racing is now on the verge of accepting a revolutionary means of funding through the sale of racecourses' signals to bookmakers. The plan is expected to bring 307 million pounds ($430 million) to racing, in addition to 80 million pounds ($112 million) for marketing purposes. If the bookmakers agree.

Only a small portion of the $430 million will go to improving Britain's paltry purses, which rank as the worst in the world vis-a-vis trainers' fees. A large part of the purses will still be garnered from whatever idea the BHB pulls out of its hat to replace the soon-to-be-defunct Levy Board, the body which used to extract a certain miniscule sum from the bookies each year.

And prize money will remain a sticking point in Britain, no matter what fancy schemes are employed there to bring more money into the sport. Which begs the question: If the rest of the world, save Ireland, has been more or less successful in producing prize money through parimutuel tote systems, why do the British think they can fund racing in an entirely different way, largely fail at it, and still think they are doing well by themselves?

If British owners could be made to fully understand that virtually all of their listed races are worth at least $10,000 less than maiden races in New York, Kentucky, and southern California, then perhaps some real pressure could be put on the BHB to produce substantial funding that could be directed to the owners' pockets while relieving fans from paying extortionate admission fees to their lovely racecourses.