06/13/2006 12:00AM

Try ditching the starting gate


TUCSON, Ariz. - Sixty years ago this summer, when it was announced I would be racing secretary as well as race caller at the next harness meeting at Sportsman's Park in Chicago, a trainer friend walked up and said, "You've lost your mind."

When asked why, he said, "You'll have 10 races a night, with 10 horses in each. You'll have 10 friends and 90 enemies after each night's card."

I recalled that conversation vividly when starting this column, but figured that if 11 readers agree and 89 think me a fool, at least I'm making progress.

So let's begin, not with the old gag about how many guys it takes to screw in a lightbulb, but rather how many it takes to start a Thoroughbred race.

The thought occurred watching the Belmont, with 12 riders ponying the field, 12 guys or more shoving and pushing and locking hands helping load the gate, two outriders, and of course a starter.

Twenty-seven people to make a starting gate work might make sense if you flunked economics. It would have sounded fine if your name was Clay Puett, who started building these mastodons. It seems extravagantly labor intensive, however, if you're a track operator in an industry desperately figuring out how to make a buck.

And with a bow to Jerry Bailey for a job done well in his starting-gate piece on ABC's Belmont Stakes broadcast, it was a trifle disconcerting to see a few of those half-broken claustrophobic rogues behind him standing on their hind legs and thrashing around wildly in their confining gate stalls.

You will pardon me, I hope, if I point out it takes just two men to start a harness race, one driving the mobile gate and one facing the field and giving instructions to the drivers. To see how well it works, watch any night on HRTV or TVG.

Before you throw things, I do know the difference in racing surfaces, with three or more inches of cushion for the runners and half an inch for the trotters and pacers, and the contention that tire tracks on a fast track or traction in the mud would present problems. Perhaps. But as the mother says to her kid spitting out his first bite of spinach, "Try it, you might like it."

The same goes for those widow-makers, the inside rail. I came back from a trip to the Elite Race at the great Solvalla track in Stockholm in 1969 surprised but inspired that there was no hub rail on the track. The late Ernie Morris, the erudite lawyer who owned Saratoga Raceway at the time, listened and took down his inside fence and tried pavers, which didn't work too well. But other track operators quickly experimented with flexible poles, and today there are few harness tracks with hub or inside rails except those offering races for both breeds and placating Thoroughbred trainers.

My jockey friends tell me today, as my harness trainer friend did six decades ago, that I'm not very bright, that there is no way jocks could control thousand-pound runners without an inside rail. I might believe that if I didn't watch so many of the little men guide their big swift mounts with incredible skill and daring through openings only inches wide, threading needles in every race.

If I learned anything as a racing secretary, it was that trainers engage in reverse anthropomorphism. They don't attribute human characteristics to their animals; instead they presume to know how their animals think. It is what makes so many trainers lousy handicappers, and in some cases lousy trainers. I had one who begged me to reclassify his horse, which wasn't doing well. I urged him to turn the sucker loose and try racing him in front. He insisted the horse needed cover and would not race without it. One night the trainer called in sick, and the judges assigned a new driver, unfamiliar or unsympathetic with the supposed mind-set of the beast. You know the result. The horse shot to the front and wired the field.

I will not live long enough to see the day when the kid eats his spinach and finds he likes it, or when Thoroughbred racing sheds its preconceived notions about what horses will or will not tolerate. Unfortunately, the horses cannot talk, but if you find one that does, ask him how he likes the starting gate, or if he could stay on the track without an inner rail.

Then try a seance and let me know what he says. I'll be waiting, smiling somewhere down below.