01/12/2010 12:00AM

Alarm siren sounds across borders


TUCSON, Ariz. - It is almost 1,000 miles from Toronto, Ontario, to Collinsville, Ill., and the two cities - one big and bustling, the other small and downtrodden - have little in common. Racing events in the last week, however, linked the two in interesting fashion.

In Toronto, Rod Seiling, perhaps best remembered as a defenseman for the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League in the early 1970s, with a longtime interest in harness racing, now is chairman of the Ontario Racing Commission.

Brian Zander is president of Fairmount Park in Collinsville, across the Mississippi from St. Louis.

Other than horse racing, they have little to link them. But when Seiling, in anger, spoke of the need for cooperation between horsemen and tracks last week, his voice echoed resonantly in Collinsville.

Seiling was upset over lack of progress in a dispute over simulcasting at two small Ontario tracks. He ordered his commission's executive director, John Blakney, to intervene and work with the parties involved. And he issued an open letter to the industry at large, which included this paragraph:

"Whether the parties realize it or not, horse racing is in a crisis as it relates to the public betting on its races . . . it cannot be allowed to become a total ward of the state. It must keep what customers it has and identify new ways and means to build the base. In short, horse racing has to have an entertainment value component. Allowing the old ways of shutting out the customer - a process that helped bring on the current crisis - is not in the cards. . . . Horsepeople and racetracks are partners; it is time for them to start acting as such."

As Seiling was issuing this pronouncement and challenge, things came to a head in Collinsville, where Fairmount Park and the union representing six state employees working there have been playing a game of chicken over health insurance issues. While they were seeing who would blink first, the Illinois Racing Board issued a deadline for settlement of the dispute.

The deadline arrived without resolution, and the racing board, furious over the impasse involving six workers, took draconian action. It earlier had issued Fairmount Park 52 dates for 2010. Last week it notified the track it was rescinding the dates award, and instead issuing Fairmount Park three racing dates for this year: April 27 and 30, and May 1.

What happens to Fairmount's other employees was uncertain as this was written. Brian Zander said he had no comment. The Illinois Racing Board's executive director, Marc Laino, said, "The deadline has come and gone," and he called it "highly unlikely" that the board would modify its order and restore the 49 dates it took from Fairmount.

An interesting aspect of all this is that the Ontario Racing Commission normally is the one that leads the way in taking decisive actions. It has suspended a number of horsemen for 10 years and fined then $100,000 or more, effectively ending their careers, for misdeeds. It is working energetically on out-of-competition drug testing. It has brought down drug dealers. And it has given the industry notice that it will continue its diligence and severity in issuing heavy penalties for actions harming racing.

Now it is joined by Illinois in using the big whip. It is hard to believe that the Fairmount penalty will hold up or remain, despite Marc Laino's words that it will. If it does, and a union brings down a race meeting over a dispute involving six employees, it will be easy to understand Rod Seiling's message, and his plea for working together, an urgent call unheard and unheeded in southern Illinois.