10/21/2004 11:00PM

Tracks reap nothing in dispute

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NEW YORK - It's been a pretty good week for Boston sports fans. On Wednesday night the Red Sox thrashed the Yankees to advance to the World Series, and the next morning Suffolk Downs restored the simulcast signal from Belmont Park after a five-week blackout. It's a photo finish as to which outcome pleased Back Bay horseplayers more. Bostonians hate the New York Yankees as much as they love New York racing.

The difference between these two comebacks is that only one of them was necessary. The blackout on simulcasting from Belmont to most New England and Midlantic tracks should never have happened in the first place and has been a pointless exercise that has done nothing but punish loyal racing fans.

The dispute between NYRA and these tracks is an arcane and largely theoretical one over account-wagering and broadcasting exclusivity, prompted by cash-strapped NYRA signing a secretive deal with the Television Games Network. The short-term issues in question, involving telephone betting in New Hampshire and Virginia, amount to pennies. Both sides privately cited larger long-term issues such as a reset in simulcast pricing or Magna Entertainment's designs on the NYRA franchise.

The dispute never had anything to do with the regular simulcasting of the Belmont signal into tracks in Eastern states, where NYRA racing has always been the most popular product. The tracks' decision to shut off the NYRA signal was a case of kicking the dog because the cat misbehaves, and kicking yourself for good measure. All these tracks are doing is alienating their fans and costing themselves short- and long-term business.

If these tracks thought they were going to undo the TVG deal with economic pressure, someone was feeding them bad advice and bad math. NYRA gets three cents on the dollar from these outlets while the tracks are keeping nearly six times as much. NYRA, which has little or no profit motive, can survive indefinitely without these tracks' business. The tracks are losing the prime component of their daytime business, enraging their best customers and, ironically, encouraging many of them to open TVG wagering accounts so they can continue to bet on NYRA racing.

It's almost enough to make you long for more government regulation in an industry that generally suffers from far too much of it. If racing commissions in these states were truly looking out for the welfare of their customers, they would order these tracks to restore the NYRA signal immediately while the philosophical stalemate continues, instead of allowing these tracks to abuse their customers as an inept negotiating ploy.

Pick six resolution falls short

Oak Tree made a well-intentioned but ultimately unfortunate decision last Saturday, when it was faced with an unprecedented situation after offering a $1 million guaranteed pick six pool.

As Brad Free reported in yesterday's Daily Racing Form, the California Cup card was the first in the short history of guaranteed pools in which two things happened at once: The actual betting pool fell short of the guarantee, and nobody picked six. Oak Tree now had two decisions to make: Should the 5-of-6 consolations be paid as if there were really $1 million in the pool? And how much should be carried over into Sunday's card - the statutory portion of the actual $861,020 pool or of the theoretical $1 million guaranteed pool?

Oak Tree split the decision, and if you had to split it, they went the right way. The track paid out the consolations as if there had been $1 million in the pool, so the people who played Saturday got every penny they deserved had there really been $1 million in the pool. Oak Tree went the other way on the carryover, however, putting $78,168 less into Sunday's pool than it would have had the Saturday pool actually met the guarantee.

It is a borderline decision and was, as Oak Tree chairman Sherwood Chillingworth put it, both a good-faith attempt to do the right thing and a decision approved by state auditors. Still, especially since the shortfall was insured, it would have been more straightforward and in even better faith to say that a "guaranteed" pool is truly guaranteed. That means that no matter what happens, every beneficiary of a $1 million pool - that day's consolation winners, the next day's carryover players, the state, the breeders, and even the track itself - gets his full share of that money.

Isn't that the whole point of buying insurance to guarantee these pools in the first place?