Laurel Race Course recently attempted to befuddle horseplayers by scheduling races at "about a mile and one sixteenth," forcing them to cope with mystery times at mystery distances. After receiving cricitism for this insensitivity to its customers, the track responded promptly.

It replaced this obfuscation with an even worse form of obfuscation.

On Saturday, Laurel became the first track in the history of the sport to offer races at a mile and one sixteenth and 20 yards. This distance was not only unfamiliar; I will wager that not one horseplayer in a thousand understands what the published times for these races really mean. For the benefit of bettors attempting to handicap rationally, I offer an explanation.

In Saturday's third race, the fractional times at the new distance were 24 3/5, 48 1/5, 1:13 1/5, 1:38 3/5 and 1:46 3/5. The next-to-last is the mile fraction, followed by the final time. A handicapper interested in how fast the horses finished would conclude that they had run the last sixteenth of a mile plus 20 yards in eight seconds. That conclusion would be correct at just about any distance at any track in America, but not in this case.

At Laurel, horses run the first 20 yards before the clocks that record fractional times are activated. The Teletimer "remembers" how long the horses took to run those 20 yards, and then adds that to the time of the finish. Thus, the important final fraction of the race does not show how fast the horses actually finished. Instead, it represents the time of the last sixteenth of a mile, plus the first 20 yards of the race -- a totally useless figure. Good luck, handicappers.

This is sheer insanity, of course, but Laurel has created these weird distances because it wants to offer races that start in front of the stands. Every other mile-and-one-eighth racetract does this by running races at a mile and one eighth, but Maryland's horsemen balk at entering these events, preferring to run their charges at 1 1/16 miles or thereabouts.

I would defy any trainer to name a horse who is capable of winning at a mile and one sixteenth and 20 yards but cannot handle a distance 90 yards longer. But Laurel caters to the horsemen's irrationality rather than the betting public's desire for rationality. Thus, horseplayers are forced to deal with complicated and unfamiliar conditions in their handicapping.

Having closeted myself with a stack of speed figures and all the Laurel charts for this season, I have concluded that these peculiar distances -- while undeniably complex -- are not unfathomable. A handicapper who understands them may do well at the Laurel meeting because so few of his fellow bettors will.

Casual readers of the Daily Racing Form will be confused because the old "about-1 1/6-mile" races and the new 1 1/16-mile-and-20-yard events are all listed in the paper at "about 1 1/16 miles," even though the distances are different.

The times for the "about" races run from Oct. 25 to Oct. 30 were, in fact, exactly a mile and one sixteenth. To translate the 1 1/16-mile-and 20-yard events to a flat 1 1/16 miles, subtract 1 1/5 seconds. A time of 1:46 3/5 at the new distance is the equivalent of 1:45 2/5.

(Horses almost always run the last sixteenth of a mile in a bit less than seven seconds. Twenty yards is 20/110 of a sixteenth of a mile, and 20/110 of any plausible final fraction comes out to 1 1/5 seconds.)

Laurel still offers many races at a flat mile, which start out of a chute in the parking lot and proceed around a half turn, instead of a full turn as the 1 1/16-mile races do. This makes comparisons difficult, but speed handicappers do possess the methodology to make these comparisons. Here is an abbreviated table of equivalent times: (TABLE) Mile Mile & 1/16 1:37(COLUMN) 1:44 1:38(COLUMN) 1:45 1/5 1:39(COLUMN)1:46 1/5 1:40(COLUMN)1:47 2/5 1:41(COLUMN)1:48 3/5 1:42(COLUMN)1:49 3/5(END TABLE)

Oridnarily, I guard my speed charts with secretness wothry of the CIA. I don't even let my mother peek at my figures. But I share this information on Laurel with readers because I don't plan to use it much any more.

Since I have a finite amount of energy to devote to handicapping, I do not plan to dissipate it at a track that clearly has no comprehension or reguard for the needs of its betting patrons. I hope readers prosper at Laurel, but I plan to go into repose, head for Gulfstream Park in January and then do my next serious gambling in Maryland when Pimlico opens in the spring.