03/20/2008 11:00PM

Why are these Sundays different?


NEW YORK - Last Sunday, there was live Thoroughbred racing at almost every track in America that had been open the day before, including major meets such as Fair Grounds, Gulfstream and Santa Anita. Those three are all open again this Sunday, along with more than a dozen other tracks from coast to coast. Among the few exceptions? New York, which alone continues to ban racing on both Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, simply because no one can be bothered to amend a costly and antiquated law that grows more hypocritical every year.

Every track operator in the state supports a repeal of that portion of Section 105 of the state racing law, but even the voluminous redrafting of the parimutuel code passed by the legislature last month skipped right from section 104 (prohibition on wagering on credit) to section 106 (statement of stockholders to be filed) without addressing this no-brainer. It's one of the few issues where on- and offtrack betting operators' interests are entirely aligned: Even the state's six regional offtrack betting corporations aren't allowed to open on those two Sundays.

The business generated on those two days alone would probably bridge the revenue shortfall (if there really is one) over which New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has threatened to close down New York City Off-Track Betting and fire its 1,500 employees. The financial impact extends beyond New York's tracks and OTBs, costing every other track in the country money through lost simulcasting wagering by New Yorkers. So it's an issue that outfits such as Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment Corp. should be lobbying for as well.

Horse racing is the only leisure activity forced to lock its doors those two days. It's business as usual like any other Sunday at the state's movie theaters, golf courses, saloons, and peep shows. It gets even worse: If those inequities aren't enough, how about the fact that the state's new racinos are allowed to take your bets? The racinos are allowed to exist only because they are on the sites of racetracks. So apparently it's moral to turn on the power to the slot machines but immoral to conduct a live horse race.

At Saratoga Gaming and Raceway in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Palm and Easter Sunday are not dark days but "Red Hot Jackpots $15,000 Drawings Days!" At Empire City Gaming at Yonkers Raceway, there's a $24.95 Easter Brunch Buffet amid the dulcet tones of 5,500 video slot machines. The trotters and pacers, however, must stay in their stalls.

The problem, of course, has been that no politician wants to be identified as anti-religion by being the one to sponsor a change. The advent of slots, however, makes this even more of a simple fairness issue than it already was.

This is one of the few times when it would actually be a good idea to bury a change in the law deep in some other bill and pass it in the middle of the night. Given how skilled the legislators are at doing that over important matters, it seems one of them should be able to do it here.

Race revival a mixed blessing

The Pimlico Special is back - or is it?

The good news is that the Maryland Jockey Club announced Thursday that the historic race is returning to the stakes schedule after being canceled last year because of a lack of funds, and will be run May 16, the day before the Preakness. The bad news is that the purse has been slashed from $500,000 to $250,000. Also, the Grade 3, $100,000 Donald Schaefer Handicap, a longtime staple for older horses on the Preakness undercard, has been canceled.

The combination of the purse cut and the cancellation was a somewhat clever way for Pimlico to reinstate a $500,000 race at a net cost of only $150,000, and to keep the race from losing its Grade 1 status if it is not run for two straight years. But will the reduced purse attract a legitimate Grade 1 field consistent with the tradition of the race, or the same crew that would have contested the Schaefer running for a bigger purse?

The Maryland Jockey Club has legitimate revenue issues, stemming from the state's failure to approve slots and a resulting loss of business to neighboring states' racinos, but its parent company, Magna, is more than capable of reallocating some of its stakes money from other properties. The Sunshine Millions card for California- and Florida-breds each January offers purses totaling $3.6 million and would not attract one fewer horse or spectator if the total were $3.3 million. That $300,000 would be far better spent ensuring the quality of one of only three Grade 1 races run in Maryland each year, and keeping the Special truly special.