06/16/2003 11:00PM

Best bet: Lawyers always win


TUCSON, Ariz. - Some parents aspire to sending their kids to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

Until last week I always felt a wiser course was to try to get them a job as a mutuel clerk in California. It's the cushiest deal I know in racing, and can lead to comfort, affluence, and security, without undue mental exertion or the physical skills necessary to become a multimillionaire by shooting or hitting a ball or someone else.

Events of recent days, however, make it clear that the profession of law is the proper way to go after all.

Ask Bob Baffert.

Ask Bob Farinella, president and general manager of Prairie Meadows Racetrack.

Ask trainer Nick Zito.

Ask New York's racetracks.

Baffert, who has spent considerable time (and presumably money) with noted attorney Neil Papiano, found he will have to spend more of both after a U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated a 60-day suspension for the 3-year-old Nautical Look's morphine positive. The court also stripped Baffert of $100,000 that had been awarded to him for legal fees. It ruled that Baffert's constitutional rights had not been abridged because the state lab destroyed Nautical Look's blood samples as part of a routine cost-saving measure, and that the federal court that ruled for Baffert never should have heard the case. Papiano said it all was a technical matter that had nothing to do with Baffert or racing, a statement that a $2 bettor along the rail at Hollywood Park might find hard to understand.

The Prairie Meadows matter involved considerably more money - well over $100 million - and an even higher court. The Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that the state had no justification to tax Iowa's riverboats at 20 percent and racetracks at sliding rates heading toward 36 percent, and told Iowa to pay back its racetracks the difference between a 20 percent tax and what the tracks had paid. That added up to the $100 million-plus figure. Iowa appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last week those nine lawyers ruled that the disparity in tax rates was neither arbitrary nor irrational, and remanded the matter back to the Iowa Supreme Court for reconsideration.

In New York, trainer Nick Zito, trying to clear his name of a $2,000 fine and 15-day suspension that, like Baffert's, was for a medication violation dating back to 2000, had his lawyer file an $8 million damage suit against the New York Racing and Wagering Board and its individual members.

While all of this was going on, the seven justices of New York's highest court disagreed on whether the Mohawk Indians were legally operating a casino in Hogansburg, and whether the Oneidas were on solid ground with their Turning Stone casino four miles down the road from the Vernon Downs harness track. They decided, by a 4-3 vote, that it was illegal to operate a casino in New York without legislative approval. Nothing will come of all this because the casinos already are established and highly successful, and the matter can easily be corrected by the legislature.

Far stickier and more consequential for racing is the pending legal issue of whether slots are constitutional. Not a nickel has dropped into a track slot machine in New York in the 21 months since slots were legalized in October 2001, and until this legal mess is resolved - which the judge handling the matter seems in no hurry to do - New York tracks are left dangling in a legal abyss.

Meanwhile, New York's top lawyer, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, dreams of Albany and the governor's seat, as most attorneys general do. To get to be governor one needs to be known and noted, and one of the best ways for an attorney general to do this is to get in the newspapers. Spitzer solved that problem last week by accusing the New York Racing Association of every misdeed except the Middle East crisis and failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

He may have underestimated his opponent, however, for NYRA Chairman Barry Schwartz took off the gloves and came out swinging with bare knuckles, accusing Spitzer of untruths and a witch hunt.

While waiting for Empire Maker and Funny Cide to take up their epic struggle again in the Travers in August, Spitzer and Schwartz will do nicely for lively and heated summer competition. So will the lawyers.