04/03/2006 11:00PM

ARCI makes excessive demands


TUCSON, Ariz. - The best of intentions sometimes are warped by the worst of ideas.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International, heady with recent unification, a strong new leader, and support from the richest group in racing, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has decided to use its latent muscles. Meek for years, it has decided to make itself a presence, not with grace but by becoming the neighborhood bully.

The ARCI decided at its annual meeting last week to threaten the tracks it supervises with retribution if they do not enforce the ARCI's program of wagering security. If they don't comply, they won't get dates. The ARCI's new president and CEO, Ed Martin, a veteran racing man who has done a service to the sport in reuniting racing commissions, said he thinks that is a gross overstatement. I do not.

Looking for a cause to reposition his group as a major industry player, Martin came up with the Chris Harn-Derrick Davis-Glen DaSilva Breeders' Cup pick six scandal, now almost four years old.

Wagering security obviously is desirable, but it is not the most important issue in racing, even though ARCI convention speakers tried to make it sound that way. Tote companies took needed action after the 2002 scandal, and there has been relative quiet since. Importantly, the pick six scandal did not involve hacking into the tote system, but was an inside job. Tote companies are the primary guardian of wagering security, and they, not the tracks, should pay for it. They almost certainly would pass the cost along to tracks, but competition would serve as a brake on that issue, assuming the market works.

Martin's vision of a national wagering security organization is valid, but the monies proposed could be spent far more beneficially on drug research, interdiction, and investigation; on more severe penalties for offenders; and with providing tools like rebates to let the traditional bricks-and-mortar track operations battle offshore backroom pirates on more equal terms. Along with all that, there is the need to find out who is betting into the pools and what they are betting, which is one function the ARCI group could perform.

What is seriously and dangerously wrong with the ARCI plan is not its objectives, but how it plans to implement them. In a closed meeting last week, the ARCI passed a unanimous resolution that, "commencing in 2007, our commissioners are going to be looking into putting as a condition of licensure of race dates a requirement that the wagering system be independently monitored."

There is only one reasonable way to translate that: "Join our group, or we'll shut you down or cut your dates." Martin says ARCI has no intention of shutting down racing, but I know of no other way of reading the resolution.

What ARCI is proposing is the federal policy used against foreign governments that don't agree with Washington: Do it our way or we'll cut your aid. We have the power, and we plan to use it. It ill befits an organization of racing commissioners, entrusted with the welfare of the sport, who should be helping racetracks, not threatening them.

Asking tracks to fund ARCI projects, or pay for "associate memberships," seems to some a conflict of interest. You do not pay monies or offer tribute to people who regulate or govern you. Jack Abramoff tried and is headed for jail.

This latest proposal goes beyond that. Racing commissioners hold the lifeline of tracks in their hands. Martin thinks using that weapon is the only way to enforce what he sees as a role ARCI is obligated to fill. I see it as an abuse of power.

Martin told the ARCI audience, "We need to do this in the same way we require security on the backstretch. We must require the independent monitoring of the wagering system. If we don't do that, we are not serving the public, or meeting the needs of this industry and everybody whose livelihood depends on it." He reiterated that to me. I pointed out that racetracks pay for backstretch security, but Martin said he feels they do because they are under mandate from their racing commissions. It also is possible they do because they understand integrity is the foundation of all parimutuel racing, without the ARCI telling them or forcing them.

I respect Ed Martin as a longtime racing official and regulator who knows the business thoroughly. I see the ARCI proposal as Draconian. He sees it as duty.

I realize ARCI has the club, but I think it is proposing to bust the wrong knees.