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COMMENTARY : Track Still Wearing Blinkers


On opening day of the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, a regular customer was complaining to a waiter in the upper reaches of the track's new Baldwin Club.

"Is this it?" he said. "You've enclosed it with glass, and given me an air-conditioner with a constant hum that's giving me a headache."

"What I do," the waiter said, "is turn down my hearing aid."

Some still-irate fans have been saying they were also given deaf ears the same day, after complaining about a horse that was erroneously excluded from the betting eight minutes before post time, then reinstated 2 1/2 minutes later and won the race.

The California Horse Racing Board, acting with uncommon swiftness, has reviewed the situation and exonerated everyone but the poor guy who hit the wrong key in the control room. Oak Tree officials have sympathized with the victimized bettors, but say they can do nothing, because it's impossible to determine which ones didn't bet the winner because of the mix-up.

Santa Anita is hoping that the controversy will go away. It will, right along with a few more fans from racing's already badly eroded fan base.

If I were Santa Anita, I would do something --anything to show the disgruntled fans that I was paying attention. Offer free admission to the grandstand on another Wednesday, in honor of the scratch that wasn't.

If that's too costly, ask Autotote to spring for a T-shirt giveaway. Make the message on the shirts light. All the world loves somebody who can laugh at himself. This wording isn't that good or original, but it's a start: "I Survived the Fifth Race on Oct. 5, 1994."

It was an Autotote employee who hit the wrong tote-board button last week. These are the same people who gave Santa Anita that opening day from hell on the day after Christmas in 1992, when tote problems cost the track an estimated $5 million in betting. But the buck stops at the track's door, and Santa Anita's mea culpa that time, a limited free-admission offer for a future racing day, was hollow and short of the mark. It irritated more fans than it mollified.

This offhand regard for customers has become more and more the case for a track that once was a pillar of American racing. Maybe Cliff Goodrich, Santa Anita's president, didn't really want to say, "If they don't like what they see, they don't have to come," in an interview with the Daily Racing Form a couple of years ago, but Santa Anita needs to work overtime to dispel the quotation that won't go away.

It wasn't that long ago that Santa Anita was dragged kicking and screaming into offering the $2 exacta after inexplicably saying for years that the $5 exacta was better for its customers.

Santa Anita has belatedly beefed up the number of television monitors in the plant, but other big things and a number of little things still need tending. The big things include the absence of an expanded daily program that many major tracks, including Hollywood Park, offer fans. The program includes past performances and, although not as complete, is less intimidating for newcomers than the complicated Racing Form. All those people, content with the expanded program and not buying the Form at the other tracks, can't be wrong.

On the tote board, Santa Anita continues to time races by hundredths instead of fifths. Students of time--and they know who they are--are enamored of hundredths, but again new fans who have advanced to reading the Racing Form see the times in fifths there. Can't the tote board, like Belmont Park's, satisfy both factions?

The other day, a track regular who had left his cigars at home couldn't buy any at Santa Anita.

"Yeah, you can still smoke them, but now you can't buy them," he said. "I was told that the front office finds them smelly, and didn't want them on sale anymore."

My pet peeve is iced tea in the dining room. There are no free refills. Is there a dining room in town that charges for tea refills, especially one that wants your betting money every half-hour? When I complained, I was told to buy the carafe instead of the glass. One day my tea bill was almost more than my meal. And don't get me started about the one-time policy of charging for small packages of soda crackers at the concession stands.

Sadly, the Santa Anita way is the racing way in too many places, and even England can be difficult. At the quaint Chester track in Northwest England this year, a woman at the owners' will-call window insisted that an 8-year-old girl would need a paid ticket because no pass had been left. The same woman wasn't going to give me my tickets because the first name on my passport didn't jibe with the first name on the envelope.

Early Thursday, I took a call from a colleague in Kentucky.

"You think it's time for a column about Keeneland not having a track announcer?" she said.

Yes, I told her. And the time for Keeneland hiring an announcer was at least 50 years ago.

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