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THERE'S GREAT STUFF ON THE NET, SOME FOR FREE

While the minimum horse race wager has remained at $2 for decades, the price of playing the ponies keeps rising.

The Daily Racing Form, the newspaper that has been the main source of thoroughbred past performances and news for over a century, now costs $5 a copy. Buffalo Raceway charges $2 for its program. If you wager at most Western Region OTB offices, you pay taxes of at least 5 percent on your winnings. And the list goes on. They are stiff prices to pay, especially for part-time handicappers who make only a bet or two a day.

Which brings the Happy Handicapper to today's topic: free stuff you can get on the Internet to help your winner-picking efforts. None of these things costs a dime (once you've paid for your computer and Internet access, that is).

Past Performances: The Daily Racing Form guards its bread and butter pretty closely so free line-by-line past performances are hard to come by.

However, there are a few exceptions. The Form (drf.com) does give away free PPs for two or three major races each weekend. Today it's the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Santa Anita's Las Virgenes Stakes. Click on the flashing "Race of the Week" box from the home page.

Bloodstock Research Information Services (brisnet.com) also sells past performances and other statistical packages. But every once in a while, like right now, it offers free samples. The current (through Feb. 28) freebies are called "Ultimate PPs" and can be obtained by clicking the appropriate line on the home page.

Also free in February is Brisnet's new "Custom Card" feature that allows you to get PPs for races that meet your personal criteria. Like maidens on the grass, claimers going long, or races between 4 and 5 p.m., when you're planning to stop in at the neighborhood OTB parlor.

Harness racing fans looking for free PPs should start with the U.S. Trotting Association (ustrotting.com), which offers program pages for a lot of the major stakes races, including a large menu (including six $100,000 races on Feb. 24) from The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

Entries: While detailed past performances are rare freebies, it's easy to get basic entries of races everywhere: horses, jockeys or drivers, trainers and morning line odds.

For thoroughbred entries, a good first stop is Equibase Co. (equibase.com) which provides almost as much information as you'd get in the track program. Just beware that the horses are listed by post-position number, which is not necessarily the same as the betting number.

Entries also abound on the Web sites of individual tracks. Aqueduct (nyra.com) lists the correct program numbers in its entries, as does Santa Anita (santaanita.com).

For bare-bones harness entries, the quick route is through the USTA site (ustrotting.com), which lists horses and early driver designations by post positions. For program numbers, trainers and morning line odds, you've got to go through the individual tracks. The Meadowlands (thebigm.com) has a great site for entries and selections. Woodbine (ojc.com) is good also, after you figure out how to click through the chaff to get to it.

Contests: You don't have to wager a dime to enjoy racing. If you surf around, you can find a bunch of handicapping and "fantasy stable" contests. Today opens the Kentucky Derby "Fantasy Challenge" (kentuckyderby.com) in which you draft a stable of 12 horses, two trainers and two jockeys and earn points during the races leading up to the big day on May 5. Also coming up is the Godolphin Stable's (godolphin.com) second annual "Seven Stars" contest in which you pick a stable of your favorites from the Dubai-based outfit's cast of hundreds.

To Watch List: This neat page feature keeps a list of up to 20 horses for you and then sends you an e-mail alert whenever the animals pop up in the entries at tracks anywhere in North America. From the Equibase or USTA home pages you can click to the "Virtual Stable" icon for details.

Selections: Free predictions abound on the Internet and you have to decide for yourself which ones are worth following. At the moment, the Handicapper's favorite is the "TSN Play of the Day," reached by clicking "Handicapping" at the Blood-Horse magazine site (bloodhorse.com). It features one horse each day, usually at Gulfstream or the Fair Grounds.

News and views. For just plain good reading, the H.H. prefers the Web sites of the Form, BRIS, Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times (thoroughbredtimes.com), Times:In Harness (timesite.com) and, as Derby time nears, the racing coverage of the Bluegrass country's major papers -- the Louisville Courier-Journal (courier-journal.com) and Lexington Herald Leader (kentuckyconnect.com).

Odds and results. If you're stuck in the cubicle in the afternoon, it's hard to beat Supertote.com for diversion value. It's like standing by the toteboards of all the tracks in operation that day. You get live odds, results, scratches, minutes to post, all kinds of good stuff to help you keep track of horses you bet at lunch time. Just don't let it distract you from your real job, or your boss may strongly suggest that you take up racing full time.

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