Most of thoroughbred racing's leaders believe that the key to the future is marketing their product effectively and attracting new fans. This was the focus of the industry's annual national conference in Arizona last week. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association unveiled an ad campaign aiming at younger fans. Panelists discussed new methods of distributing their product through the Internet and home television.

Yet if horseplayers had a voice in these discussions, many would argue that track executives have overlooked the most important issue affecting their business: the quality of the product itself.

It doesn't take much to keep hard-core bettors happy. We don't need sky boxes or gourmet racetrack restaurants or anything but the most functional amenities. Just give us races that are reasonably competitive and reasonably honest. Too many U.S. tracks are failing to meet these minimal standards.

Nobody loves this game more than I, but I am thoroughly disheartened after playing the races at Del Mar over the summer and at Calder in the fall. The California tracks have been plagued for years by a shortage of horses, and the resulting small fields have alienated their most ardent fans. Nobody can get excited betting a steady diet of six- and seven-horse fields.

While California's problems are largely beyond its control, Calder's dismal product is of its own making. The track has a bountiful horse population at this time of year, but it insists on running 10 to 12 races a day, six days a week, diluting its product. On Tuesday, its 10-race program averaged 7.3 horses per race and included five events for maidens. A race that could have been a full field of low-level maiden 2-year-old fillies was split into two noncompetitive seven-horse fields. More than half the winners on the card paid 2 to 1 or less.

Obviously, there are short-term financial benefits from running the maximum number of races, however bad they may be, or Churchill Downs Inc. (which bought Calder this year) wouldn't be doing it. But the cumulative effect of bad racing will diminish fans' enthusiasm for the game and hinder the creation of new fans. People who fall in love with the game usually do so because handicapping races is an endlessly fascinating, challenging puzzle that can pay big rewards if it is solved. Even if racing does expose new fans to the game via home television and computer, are they going to get hooked by figuring out which of seven bad maidens is going to pay $6.20?

While the prevalence of small fields at many tracks is a frequent annoyance, the sport has an even bigger problem that can shake its foundation: the perception that the use of illegal drugs is out of hand. Although thoroughbred racing has gone through recurrent periods of drug problems, the abuses in recent years have been more flagrant and widespread than ever (presumably because of the use of the medication clenbuterol and the concoctions called "milkshakes"). There are many racing circuits that I shun because of these concerns. I won't play the Kentucky tracks on a regular basis. I used to play Philadelphia Park--but not since several previously obscure trainers started winning races at a rate that surpassed most members of the Racing Hall of Fame. The recent publicity given to the drug issue in Kentucky, where milkshaking seems to be a common practice, has made even casual fans wonder about the ethics of the game.

The racing industry has been reluctant to address this issue out of fear of besmirching its reputation, but the game is not going to grow and win new fans unless it does. Even though racing is entering an era in which it brings its product into the home, it faces stiff competition in America's living rooms from the stock market and the rising popularity of day trading. What's going to be more appealing--riding the ups and downs of Yahoo for a day or betting a six-horse field at Calder? Wondering who's been juiced in Kentucky or playing a game that is reasonably well regulated? When it costs 20 percent to bet a horse race while you can trade a stock online for $8, there's no question which game is more attractive from a financial standpoint.

Of course, the thoroughbred industry has to try to market its sport to a broader audience and to use technology to spread its product. But its leaders shouldn't think they can prosper without focusing on the quality of the game itself. To paraphrase the unofficial slogan of the 1992 Clinton campaign: It's the racing, stupid.