01/29/2003 1:00AM

Trial system needs an overhaul


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Louisiana State Racing Commission is investigating the ninth race on Jan. 23 at Delta Downs, a trial for the $30,000 Graduation Futurity. While the initiative to look into the race is applauded, it should have been unnecessary. Betting should not be allowed on Thoroughbred trial races, at least under their current format.

For those unfamiliar with trials for Thoroughbred stakes, they work like this. Horses typically advance to futurities by racing in trials, which are qualifying races. The horses with the best trial finishes move on to the stakes race.

In Thoroughbred racing as opposed to Quarter Horse racing, finish position - not final time - determines who qualifies. The problem arises when a horse doesn't need a top finish to advance, and the outcome becomes largely irrelevant.

That, unfortunately, is what happened at Delta Downs. In the second of two trials for the Graduation Futurity, 2-5 favorite Cleaning House broke awkwardly and finished third in a race he was expected to win under jockey Donnie Meche.

Having handicapped the race, I believed Cleaning House towered over the opposition. He had run much faster against better opposition at Fair Grounds for Steve Asmussen, one of the leading trainers in the country.

Yet he lost to 35-1 shot Amazing Glace and 10-1 Classie Cassie. Watching the race on the Internet at Racereplays.com, it seemed to me that Cleaning House was unlucky early and ridden overconfidently for a horse who never got within two lengths of victory. To be fair, the horse seemed to lug in through the stretch, which made Meche's task more difficult.

Of course, horses lose as the favorite all the time. Even great horses like Cigar and Secretariat were beaten. If we questioned why every favorite loses, we would have six or seven questioned races on a typical card of racing. But this race deserves examination by the Louisiana Racing Commission, if only to restore the confidence of bettors.

That's the problem with trials. In this particular case, Cleaning House didn't need to run any better than midpack to advance to the Graduation Futurity. So those who wagered on him at 2-5 might conclude that Cleaning House may not have been asked to give 100 percent.

This isn't the first time this has happened. A similar event occurred on a grander scale in 1993 at Woodbine. That year, Craig Perret was the regular rider on Peteski, who won the Canadian Triple Crown after coming off a second in the Queen's Plate Trial.

After winning the Queen's Plate, Perret told reporters if he had "put a whole lot of pressure on him [in the Trial], he probably could have won that day. But I just didn't want to get everything from him. . . . I wanted him better for the Plate."

Bettors, upon reading these comments, were understandably upset and Perret was suspended for failing to persevere and for making comments detrimental to racing. Eventually he was cleared of the failure to persevere allegation, but because of his comments he was given 15 days for conduct detrimental to racing.

Horsemen, understandably, view trials differently than bettors. They treat them as preps, stepping-stones to larger prizes. But to bettors, trials are instances in which they can win or lose money, just like any other race. They want to see their jockeys sticking and driving.

Consider the race at Delta Downs. Because there were only a pair of trials, whether a horse qualified by finishing first or fifth didn't matter, aside from the purse money to be won or lost in the $10,000 trial.

But what is $10,000 in the scheme of racetrack purses? That is less than a standard $13,000 maiden special weight at Delta Downs, and $18,000 less than a $28,000 maiden race at Fair Grounds.

Imagine the dilemma these riders face. Should a jockey ask a horse for everything to win a small $10,000 pot, though it may leave the horse wiped out for a black-type, $30,000 race weeks later?

Some owners might say no, save something for next time. But as a bettor, I say yes, lay it all on the line.

Racing must uphold its integrity. All tracks, not just Delta Downs, should consider eliminating wagering on Thoroughbred trials if they are structured in this format.

If tracks don't wish to give up wagering revenue, they should make trials more significant. Assign more money to turn them into races that horsemen want to win, instead of races that result in a horse blowing a condition on a small purse.

Another option is to do what the Quarter Horse industry does - have the horses qualify on the basis of time, not finish position. That way jockeys would feel inclined to ask their mounts for their best, not wanting to fall short with a slow qualifying time.

One thing is for sure - this practice of running trials for inconsequential purses needs to stop. When you run a race for peanuts, it produces a nutty result.