07/10/2003 11:00PM

Summer series could be even better

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NEW YORK - The NTRA Summer Racing Tour is one of racing's brightest new developments and a rare promotion that successfully targets both occasional and die-hard racing fans.

The Tour concluded last weekend with the last of four Saturday telecasts that put 12 graded stakes in front of a national audience on CBS: the Brooklyn, Leonard Richards, Stephen Foster, Ogden Phipps, Ohio Derby, Dallas Turf Cup, Mother Goose, Arlington Classic, Molly Pitcher, Suburban, Firecracker, and American Oaks.

For the general public, it's a timely and important reminder that racing does not disappear after the Triple Crown and a good way to introduce horses outside the 3-year-old division who may turn up down the road in the Breeders' Cup. The broadcasts, which also featured an interesting two-part recap of the Royal Ascot meet, skillfully inform casual fans without insulting the intelligence of knowledgeable players, a rarity in televised sports.

For existing bettors, the shows appear to have spurred additional interest - handle on the 12 races was up by $2.7 million, or 17 percent, over last year. The figures could have been even better, though.

The first three weekends were additionally appealing to regular customers because there was a special national pick three on the televised races. There was no pick three on the final weekend, however, for reasons that illustrate how the people managing the sport sometimes don't understand their customers.

As Matt Hegarty reported in Saturday's Daily Racing Form, "The final broadcast did not include a national pick three because Churchill Downs feared that the inclusion of the wager would dilute the handle for a $1 million guaranteed pick six that day at Hollywood Park, owned by Churchill."

The American Oaks, which would have been the last leg of a national pick three on the televised races, was also was the first leg of the Hollywood pick six. Churchill's dilution concerns about an overlap on the two wagers did not prevent Hollywood from making the Oaks the first, middle and last leg of three of its own rolling pick threes, the first and second leg of its own rolling daily doubles, the fourth leg of its place-all, or from offering win, place, show, exacta, quinella, and trifecta betting on the Oaks. Those 12 pools didn't dilute the pick six but a national pick three would have?

It is difficult to believe there is a single horseplayer in America who would have played the national pick three instead of the Hollywood pick six. Are we supposed to believe that a customer who had done all the homework and plotting to play the Hollywood pick six would have run out of money playing a national pick three earlier in the day? Or that someone alive with some modest pick threes would decide he no longer needed to take a shot at a $1 million pool?

If anything, as people who actually bet could have told Churchill, it would have worked the other way. A New Yorker or Kentuckian with an opinion on the Suburban or Firecracker might have tried to leverage it through the national pick three and looked at the Oaks, which might in turn have spurred him to keep reading the Hollywood past performances and consider playing the Hollywood pick six.

Instead, plenty of players were completely confused about whether there was a national pick three. It seemed reasonable to assume there was one, since the previous three weekends had featured one tied to the telecasts.

It's encouraging to see that racetracks are making decisions based on wagering concerns, a belated acknowledgment that they're actually in the business of selling parimutuel tickets, but there seems to be a lot of guesswork and misinformation about what the customers actually want.

For example, the idea has taken hold that pick-six players want full fields in every leg of the bet, even if that means backloading a card with a succession of bloated maiden-claiming fields or excluding a high-quality race with a small field from the sequence. In fact, the latter type of race may make it more appealing for smaller players to get involved, and even the whales and syndicates can't go five deep in every race.

The NTRA Summer Racing Tour should have a multi-race bet every weekend, and it might be worth experimenting with a pick four rather than a pick three. Each of this year's weekends had an obvious fourth race that should have been part of the lineup - the Whittingham, Vanity, Beverly Hills, and United Nations each had a lot more significance and Breeders' Cup relevance than the Richards, Ohio Derby, Arlington Classic, or Firecracker.

Hollywood cleared its guaranteed-pick-six hurdle last Saturday, attracting a pool of $1,078,631. If next year's American Oaks is both the last leg of a Summer Tour pick four and the first leg of a guaranteed $1 million pick six, I am willing to bet Churchill management a mint julep that the pick-six pool will not be a dollar shorter.