01/16/2004 1:00AM

Three-way tie for week's worst call


Some photo finishes are just too close to call. Such is the case this week choosing the most exasperating development from a trio on the local, national, and international racing fronts.

Let's begin on the global scale, which is what the International Classification Committee purports to do with its annual ratings of the world's top racehorses. The racing secretaries from 10 nations who collaborate on the Classifications announced their 2003 selections in London last Monday. You might think the world's best horse last year was Falbrav, the British Horseracing Board's horse of the year, or Mineshaft, his likely American counterpart, but the ICC bestowed its highest rating of 133 on Hawk Wing. He didn't beat champions or win any championship races, but the ICC chooses to rate horses off a single top performance and thus considers him the planet's best racehorse off his 11-length victory in something called the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury last May.

That decision alone should discredit the rating system, but what is even more cockeyed is the ICC's unfounded, elitist assumption that Europe's top horses are a breed apart from the lowly Americans who toil on dirt. Hawk Wing's 133 rating was followed by Dalakhani's 132, Alamshar's 131, and Mubtaker's 130. You have to drop down to 127 to find Mineshaft and Candy Ride, who are considered no better than Johar.

So Europe's top 3-year-old, Dalakhani, is supposedly five pounds better than Mineshaft or any other American horse and 10 pounds better than America's best 3-year-olds, Empire Maker and Funny Cide, who were rated at 122 - the same as Dai Jin, the winner of that international classic, the German Derby.

One would expect that America would be tossed a bone for at least having the world's best sprinters, but England's Oasis Dream was rated from three to five pounds better than Congaree, Aldebaran, and Cajun Beat. Right. American racing authorities should withdraw from this ridiculous and misleading exercise.

On the national scene, Magna Entertainment announced a new wager, a weekly $500,000-guaranteed national pick five linking races at Gulfstream, Laurel, and Santa Anita. It's an appealing idea, capitalizing on the popularity of multirace bets and guaranteed pools. One huge problem: The minimum bet will be $2 rather than $1.

A $1 minimum is a major reason that the pick four has been the most popular new bet in racing. Players with modest bankrolls have a chance at a jackpot by getting twice as many combinations at a lower minimum, and every participant doubles his chances of avoiding tax withholding and reporting requirements that discourage participation. A $2 minimum does not increase pools. It only decreases the number of combinations that players can buy and removes money from circulation through taxes.

This is an especially tone-deaf move at a time when Magna is under intense heat from customers regarding access to its pools and signal. The new bet starts Jan. 31, so Magna still has time to reconsider the $2 minimum.

Finally, there is the story in Thursday's Albany Times-Union that New York City OTB might stop taking bets on New York Racing Association tracks because the city's "code of conduct" allows OTB to stop doing business with a company under indictment. Last month, NYRA agreed to a deal in which it would be fined and technically indicted but not actually prosecuted for a tax-evasion scheme by mutuel clerks.

The plea has nothing to do with the NYRA product that OTB resells or with the company's current management and operation. Yet continuing to do business with NYRA might compromise the high morals of OTB, which reduces a customer's profit margin by at least 6 percent and as much as 50 percent in order to fund itself and shuts off signals from higher-quality tracks with lower takeout rates. It is hard not to think of an indignant flea complaining about the character of the dog it is riding.

A shutoff of the NYRA signal to OTB will never happen, given that state law requires OTB to carry New York racing and that OTB's handle would plummet if it tried to subsist on out-of-state simulcasts. This is merely another malicious ploy to denigrate NYRA, and OTB should disavow the political operatives floating this absurd nonissue. Instead, OTB president Ray Casey told the Times-Union, "I consider this to be a very serious issue.'

It's about as serious as Hawk Wing being the world's best horse and a customer-friendly bet with a $2 minimum.