07/29/2004 12:00AM

Spa giving fans wrong sign

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The different mood surrounding this 136th season of racing at Saratoga was captured perfectly by the opening-day headline in the local paper, The Saratogian. The usual banner is something like "They're Off and Running!" or "Racing Returns to Spa!" This year, it was "NYRA Under Microscope."

The grand old plant on Union Avenue is as charming as ever, but the only new additions to the facility are dozens of signs nailed up everywhere you look, encouraging patrons to report "fraud or misconduct" at the New York Racing Association to a toll-free "Integrity Hotline" manned by Federal court-appointed monitors.

They haven't missed a piece of wall space, with signs hanging over both the entrance and exit to the men's room on the first floor of the grandstand, not to mention every mustard and ketchup dispenser near a hotdog stand. So if you have any questions about the integrity of the $4.25 jumbo frank, you know which fancy Manhattan law firm to call.

What a festive way for the government to greet the public at a state-sanctioned facility. None of the charges that politicians have leveled at NYRA involve the racing or any dealings with the public. If every business with employees who once cheated on their taxes was covered with placards, Acme Sign Corporation would be worth more than Microsoft.

At least the signs are in the same red-and-white colors as the rest of Saratoga's signage, so if you squint a little and pretend that they're just more "No Smoking" warnings, it's possible to forget about deferred prosecutions and franchise renewals and focus instead on the world's best race meeting. Try as they might, the politicians have yet to ruin that, though the season is young.

Less turns out to be more

NYRA's first major racing decision of the meeting can be pronounced a success. Traditionalists shed a sentimental tear when the ancient Saratoga Special and Adirondack Stakes were removed from the stakes calendar, but it was time for a change. There were simply too many 2-year-old stakes races at NYRA tracks between the start of Saratoga and the Champagne in October, especially in an era in which racing horses more sparingly is in vogue. Horses were skipping races in the sequence, there were too many short fields, and races such as the Spinaway and Futurity had lost their Grade 1 status due to declining quality.

Having two rather than three stakes for each division during Saratoga has paid immediate dividends. The opening-day Schuylerville drew a dozen entrants rather than the usual six or seven, and Thursday's Sanford for the colts attracted 11. The Hopeful and Spinaway 3 1/2 weeks later should get similarly large turnouts, and the Futurity and Matron when racing returns to Belmont should also be better races.

Going overboard on Smarty

If there were an Integrity Hotline for the World Thoroughbred Rankings put out each week by the Breeders' Cup, it should be flooded by callers wondering whether hype, bloodstock values, and television ratings have replaced impartial judgment in assessing the quality of the sport's top runners.

According to the rankings, Smarty Jones is the best racehorse in the world at 128 pounds, two better than Pleasantly Perfect at 126, five better than Southern Image at 123 and 11 better than Peace Rules at 117.

This is absurd. Smarty Jones is a very nice horse who attracted a welcome flood of attention for the sport, but he is a 3-year-old who has won two Grade 1 races, one of them in the slop, and has yet to face older horses. He may be a better horse than War Emblem or Funny Cide, but at this point he has not accomplished anything more than they did. In any legitimate handicap race, he would properly be assigned less weight than Pleasantly Perfect and Southern Image, not more. For the Breeders' Cup to sanction rankings where the opposite is espoused makes it appear than promotion has triumphed over fair play.

So does the news this week that the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority is willing not only to schedule the Pegasus Handicap for whatever date best suits Smarty Jones, as previously announced, but also that it might run the race at Monmouth Park if the Smarty crew would prefer to run there than at The Meadow-lands.

Monmouth has taken criticism in the past for paying appearance fees to trainers to attract marquee horses, but those acts seem to fall on the side of aggressive promotion and do not give anyone an advantage over his potential competition. Running the Pegasus whenever and wherever the connections of one horse ask them to, however, makes a mockery of an established graded stakes race.

It's past time for the NJSEA to announce when and where the Pegasus will be run. To keep saying its time and place is dependent on the health and participation of a single horse only devalues the legitimacy of the entire event.