Coupled entries decision angers bettors


April 07, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Since bettors have no lobbyist or lawyer at their beck and call, Maryland Racing Commission meetings serve mainly as forums for horsemen and racetrack management.

Don't let that fool you. Bettors have plenty to say.

When the commission voted, 4-2, last month to allow the uncoupling of certain entries in the richer races at Pimlico and Laurel Park, Bob Beck became furious. A 58-year-old retired Spanish teacher who lives in Wheaton, Beck bets on the races nearly every day at Laurel.

His reaction? "Outrageous. Once again, the public be damned."

In an effort to create more betting interests per race and to increase handle, the commission abolished a long-standing rule about coupled entries.

Now, if a trainer enters two or more horses in the same race, even if they are owned by different people, the horses race as one betting interest. In the near future, such horses will race as separate betting interests.

That might mean more betting opportunities, which gamblers like, or even larger fields, which gamblers also like, but it also could mean chicanery on the part of trainers trying to cash a bet, Beck said. If the trainer's 8-1 entrant wins, but his 6-5 favorite finishes up the track, gamblers will be suspicious, Beck says.

"It's just bad for the game, whether it's deliberate, orchestrated or accidental," Beck said. "The perception's there that the trainer might be playing games at your expense. Even if it's mostly on the up-and-up, the perception's there."

Commissioners Terry Saxon and Ellen Moyer voted against uncoupling the entries. Saxon said he did for that very reason.

"I'm not saying anything improper is going to be going on. In fact, I don't think there will be," Saxon said. "But unfortunately, I think this sends the wrong signal to the public."

John Franzone, a commissioner who usually champions the customers' cause, says he reluctantly voted for the measure as a way of increasing field sizes.

He noted that the commission approved the uncoupling only as a six-month experiment - at the behest of horsemen and track management.

"If the whole thing doesn't work," he said, "we'll change it."

The new rule could take effect as soon as two weeks. It will apply to maiden special weights, allowance races and claiming races worth more than $20,000.

Uncoupling is already allowed in stakes and handicaps. Coupled entries will continue in cheaper races.

Xtra Heat resting

Since flying home from the Middle East, where Xtra Heat finished third March 23 in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen, the Maryland filly has been vacationing at John Salzman's farm in Sykesville.

Salzman, her trainer and part-owner, said she will complete her two-week rest later this week and return to her barn at Laurel Park.

"She hasn't missed an oat," Salzman said. "She's doing fine."

Xtra Heat dueled in Dubai as the heavy favorite with eventual winner Caller One before dropping off the pace and finishing 3 1/2 lengths behind.

After the race, Salzman said that Xtra Heat had been coughing for a week. He said nothing publicly beforehand, he said, because he didn't want to make excuses.

The filly has allergies, Salzman says. At home he simply gives her antihistamines to clear them up. In Dubai, where bushes and trees bloomed near her barn, no medications were permitted.

Also, Salzman noticed in watching replays of the race that Xtra Heat never changed leads (never changed the leg with which she strided out). She ran the entire six furlongs on the staightaway under Maryland jockey Harry Vega leading with her right leg. That, and the allergies, had to take a toll on her performance, Salzman said.

Still, he said, he's not making excuses. She earned $200,000, and the race sponsors must have spent more than $100,000 paying for Xtra Heat's nine-person party to attend the race.

"It was a good experience," Salzman said. "When you get the chance to run for a million two [the winner's share, $1.2 million], you've got to take it."

What's in store for Xtra Heat? Perhaps the Maryland Breeders' Cup against males on Preakness day at Pimlico, perhaps a six-furlong, Group 1 sprint in England in mid-June, perhaps the Princess Rooney Handicap at Calder in July.

The ultimate goal, Salzman said, is the Breeders' Cup Sprint, in which Xtra Heat finished second last year.

Heisler calls it quits

John J. Heisler retired June 30 after 19 years as a steward at Pimlico and Laurel Park and more than 50 years in racing.

He began walking and galloping horses in 1949 at tracks on the East Coast, and then he trained horses on his own, served as assistant to trainer J. Bowes Bond and eventually worked in the racing office in Maryland.

He served as claims clerk, patrol judge, placing judge, paddock judge, fill-in steward and finally, in 1983, steward.

Asked what prompted his retirement, Heisler said: "I'm 74. I figured, well, you've got to do it sometime."

Josette Edwards, the steward's administrative aide, will replace Heisler until a new steward can be hired.

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