It was two days before Christmas and barely a racetrack was stirring. The usual frenetic pace of full-card simulcasting had subsided during the pre-holiday lull, and only four tracks had scheduled afternoon cards for Dec. 23. If their races were run six or seven minutes apart, bettors would have ample time to handicap, wager, watch the action and the replays and make an occasional trip to the concession stand.

Of course, such a sane, well-coordinated schedule exists only in the dreams of America's horseplayers. What happened this past Thursday might be a small annoyance, but it underscores the large problem affecting the simulcast business in the United States.

At 3:28 p.m., races were being contested simultaneously at Laurel, Philadelphia Park and the Fair Grounds. The fourth track, Calder, would have been running at the same time except that an unruly horse delayed the start of a race. (Calder's race got off at 3:29.) After this surfeit of action, bettors got to twiddle their thumbs for more than 20 minutes--with no races being run anywhere. Then Philly ran a race at 3:53, Laurel at 3:55 and the Fair Grounds at 3:56. This burst of action was followed by 20 minutes of more thumb-twiddling.

Clearly, it ought to be in the interests of the racetracks to give bettors time to focus on the races and wager on them. So why don't they? Partly because each track has its own local concerns, and partly because they don't pay attention.

Pat Mahony, vice president in charge of mutuels at Calder, said his track has little flexibility in scheduling because it runs as many as 12 races in an afternoon. He said Calder does try to coordinate post times with tracks in New York and California (which doesn't prevent the first race at Calder and Aqueduct from being run simultaneously every day). But he said "we typically don't look at the post times" of mid-level tracks such as Laurel and the Fair Grounds.

Ray Beard, simulcast director at the Fair Grounds, said that his track ordinarily will delay its post times a minute or two to avoid conflicts, but this wasn't done before Christmas because "everybody wanted to get home that night."

Laurel's vice president, Jim Mango, is one of the few track executives obsessed by simulcast schedules, and he tries to run Maryland's races at an optimal time. "If people focusing on New York and Florida get bored between races, and one of our races pops up, that helps us," Mango said. He attributes proper scheduling to a stunning increase in out-of-state betting on Maryland races in 1999. Mango's department draws up a daily master chart showing post times at every other track so that Laurel can schedule its own races accordingly. But almost nobody else does so. No central office coordinates the schedule of U.S. tracks, though this might be a useful job for one of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's legion of vice presidents.

If I were the czar of racing, I would decree that every track in the United States run its races 30 minutes apart. The major tracks would be given slots 10 minutes apart--New York at :00 and :30 on the hour, California at :10 and :40, Gulfstream at :20 and :50. The secondary tracks would be fitted in between them--Laurel at :05 and :35, for example. Minor tracks would have slots, too--Beulah Park at :03 and :33.

This, of course, is much too logical for the thoroughbred industry. Despite the NTRA's attempts to unify the sport, every racetrack remains its own little fiefdom; every racetrack manager has his own agenda. The industry can't even manage to adopt universal color-coded saddle cloths that every fan likes. It can't agree on a uniform system for displaying payoffs so bettors won't be confused. (California tracks quote exacta and trifecta payoffs in terms of their return on a $1 bet, while almost everybody else uses the traditional $2 standards.) And tracks schedule their races with little regard for what everybody else is doing.

Most racetrack managers can't perceive that their local concerns are small matters compared to the national interests that drive the sport. At the Fair Grounds on Dec. 23, on-track customers bet a bit more than $300,000 on the live races while off-track betting totaled more than $5 million. The $500,000 wagered by fans at Calder on the live racing card was about one-tenth of the track's total handle. Almost every racetrack is a national business, with a large percentage of its wagering generated by simulcast viewers, and yet most tracks operate as if those customers don't matter or don't exist.