02/28/2007 1:00AM

On the surface, this rule's a no-brainer

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A storm passed through Broward County on Monday afternoon, briefly spoiling a lovely day. Not only did the skies darken, but the weather helped blacken the moods of many bettors at Gulfstream Park. They could say, with justification, that the day's events demonstrated how little the people in the racing industry think or care about their customers.

Gulfstream had scheduled the seventh and ninth races of the nine-race card on its turf course. Both were part of the high-paying wagers that have become an important part of the menu at many U.S. tracks: the pick six and the pick four. They were also part of the day's final pick three, and more than $144,000 was in the pools for these wagers. When the rain began to fall shortly before the sixth race, the pick six was under way and most players had already placed their bets on the pick four.

The rain was still falling during the seventh race, but the turf course - which had been very fast in recent days - was in decent shape. The condition of the course was officially downgraded from firm to good, but the horses raced without incident and posted a respectable final time. In Europe, where almost all races are run on grass and many of them on soggy grass, the conditions might have been considered better than average.

Gulfstream recently spent millions of dollars to build a big, beautiful turf course that supposedly would allow it to run more grass races under marginal conditions. But the track's management has been very protective of its grass this season and has been quick to shift races to dirt after any inclement weather. After watching the seventh race, the track's president, Bill Murphy, consulted with Dennis Testa, the director of racing operations, and decided to take the ninth off the grass.

"It was divoting out too much," Murphy said. "We talked to the jockeys after the race, and we felt in the interest of safety it was too slick." Murphy said that when horses kick up divots, the course can be so damaged that it is unusable for days afterward.

Racetrack officials across the country frequently weigh the pros and cons of transferring races from turf to dirt. But in their deliberations, I would bet confidently that these words are rarely uttered: "What about the bettors?"

When horseplayers handicapped the maiden fillies in Monday's ninth race, most were looking either for runners with established turf form or ones who hadn't raced on grass but had the pedigree to do so. Their records on the dirt were of secondary importance. But when the race was taken off the grass, all of this handicapping logic was turned upside down. Only two fillies in the field possessed respectable dirt form and one of them - the 3-1 shot Aphrodisiac - won the race.

Bettors who played the pick four and pick six, however, were stuck with the selections they had made for a turf race. The morning-line favorite, turf-loving Missy Moss, was scratched, and under the rules of these wagers, bettors got the post-time favorite in her place; the favorite finished second to Aphrodisiac. Horseplayers may calmly accept the fact that fate will usually be cruel, but they will be enraged by losing a bet this way, because there is an easy and fair way for tracks to deal with these last-minute turf-to-dirt switches.

The New York Racing Association last year adopted what ought to be a universal rule governing such situations. When a race is taken off the turf after betting has closed in a pick four or pick six, that race is treated as no contest for the purpose of these wagers. Every horse in the field is considered a winner. Under the NYRA rules, anyone who picked the first three winners in Gulfstream's pick four would have cashed a winning ticket.

"This is a fairness issue," said Bill Nader, chief operating officer of NYRA. "When a race comes off the turf, the whole complexion of the race changes. It's a different event. We did this to protect bettors and for the sake of integrity."

The NYRA rule is indisputably so fair and logical that other racing jurisdictions should be ashamed that they haven't emulated it. But most of the people who regulate racing are so concerned with the interests of the vocal factions in the sport - track owners, horsemen, and jockeys - that they rarely think about what is good or fair for the betting public.

Racetrack operators should push for the adoption of a rule like New York's - Murphy said he would investigate the possibilities this week - but if they don't have such a measure in place they should reorder their priorities. When they have to decide whether to take a race off the turf, they should worry about their customers at least as much as they do about their precious grass.

(c) 2007 The Washington Post