08/09/2004 11:00PM

Wanted: Stars, not comets


TUCSON, Ariz. - Here in Tucson, Doug Reed of the University of Arizona School of Racing sits in well-deserved shiny new quarters, planning his highly successful December talkfest, the annual Symposium on Racing.

I have a suggestion, and a threat, for Doug.

First, the threat:

After Smarty Jones, if I hear a breeder talk about the betterment of racing and improvement of the breed, I'll get sick and mess up the big show right in front of hundreds in the rotunda of the Ventana Canyon Resort, the fancy digs where the Symposium is held.

The suggestion:

Address the real problem, which is Bruised Cannon Bones vs. Big Bucks, or What to Do About the Triumph of Romance Over Running.

It is a thorny issue with no easy answer, but unless racing addresses it, the precious little space it gets in the newspapers and airwaves of today will continue to erode and wash away.

The economics are fully understood. It makes vastly more sense economically to stand a famous stud prospect than race a prospective stallion.

But a solution to the problem is worthy of study in the halls of higher education. It certainly is not forthcoming from the farms of the Bluegrass or the board rooms of tracks that must put on a show without stars.

Great geldings and brilliant fillies and mares might help, but they are in short supply. So are any real stars, who in today's racing appear with the frequency of Halley's comet, blazing a brief trail across a media sky and then winding up in a field in Kentucky.

How do sportswriters write about non-events?

How do tracks sustain interest in spells of nothingness?

How do you build rivalries with principals that duck and dodge?

Once Three Chimneys was announced as the future home of Smarty Jones, and then the Haskell, the Travers, and the Pennsylvania Derby soon slipped from the orbit of the colt's possible return, it became obvious that something was amiss.

Given the statements of trainer John Servis and renowned vet Dr. Larry Bramlage, it seems clear it was nothing earth-shaking physically.

We can only imagine the conversations between Smarty's owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, and Three Chimneys owner, Robert Clay. But we can easily guess at the agonizing indecision of the Chapmans and the clear vision of the breeder.

Stallions do not face the rigors of the racetrack. Bruised cannon bones and bowed tendons and strained suspensories and respiratory relapses and bad steps in training miles do not haunt the breeding shed. Infertility is the biggest danger there, and there are specialists to address that problem - specialists and time, for which few are willing to wait these days, on farms or at racetracks.

The American public is restless, fickle, and fractious, anxious for instant gratification and constant action, and neither geared nor interested in waiting months for the next chapter of the drama of the turf.

Smarty Jones was a shooting star; he's now disappeared. Sentimentalists can visit Three Chimneys and ooh and aah as he gallops across a verdant paddock, a pleasant diversion but hardly a solution for the sport's vexing problem of attracting and holding fans.

Smarty will be replaced, of course, by a handsome new star, with a name less catchy if perhaps more regal. There will be no Chapmans, no Someday Farm, no miraculous life-saving surgery, no series of conquests leading to the Triple Crown with dramatic twists at every turn. There will, however, be the nagging question: How long will he last?

Economics triumph over esoterics every time. Smarty is gone, and it will remain for some future Laura Hillenbrand to resurrect him, decades down the road. This time, it won't take a long narrative. The brevity of his brilliance will do better as a short story.

City of Saratoga strikes back

The barbarians are at the gates of Saratoga. Or something close. Hotdog vendors and trinket salesmen, up to 103 of them, have been licensed by an irate city council to sell goods on the sidewalks of the hallowed home of champions. The decision to do so came in response to NYRA canceling a $1-a-year lease to the city to run a profitable NYRA-controlled parking lot near the track. NYRA took back the lease to help bolster its own lean larder.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, unless it is a politician shorn of gold.