12/15/2009 12:00AM

Brits becoming major players


TUCSON, Ariz. - Where is Paul Revere when we need him? If he is too far removed, any old rider on a nag will do to spread the word that the British are coming. Again.

They have waited patiently for more than 200 years, and now we colonials face Lexington and Concord all over again as Betfair spreads over the land, seeking to end bricks-and-mortar racing as we know it. The British bet-matching company denies that, saying it will provide horse racing with unprecedented popularity and build the sport with new, young, savvy customers.

Gerard Cunningham, Betfair's U.S. president, spoke here last week at the University of Arizona's big symposium shootout. He talked in soothing tones of reassurance, saying the American racing battle lines were shrinking at 10 percent a year, that consolidation of racing is not growth, and that Betfair was growing exponentially wherever its online betting exchange format has been allowed.

He said Betfair increases integrity because every transaction is recorded and offers "a more vibrant" form of entertainment. He talked of successes in Tasmania, where Betfair bought its way into being. He said the company has complied with all U.S. laws, even before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act - the anti-gambling bill so hated by the Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, who says it is unworkable and denies our citizens freedom of choice by banning Internet betting.

In a brilliant tactical move, Betfair established a beachhead on U.S. soil when it bought TVG for a bargain $50 million. It was a Trojan horse to ride into the very heart of American racing.

Once here, Betfair marched boldly on major American tracks, who liked the idea of selling American racing abroad. The betting exchange cannot take wagers from American bettors on American racing under present U.S. laws, but that battle still lies ahead, and Betfair knows how to fight it.

Cunningham called Betfair "a stock exchange for sports bettors" and told of its wondrous numbers but never touched a central issue: How betting on horses to lose endangered the very spirit and purpose of the game - winning.

He spoke calmly and confidently, except when the question of how the present racing industry will be reimbursed was raised by someone in the audience. Some of the home troops thought his response grew vague and cloudy at that point, and a few revolutionary rifles were raised in anticipation of trouble ahead.

Meanwhile, another British racing beachhead has been reported in the United States, this time in the field of laboratory drug testing.

In recent years, as the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium made giant strides toward unification of rules in North American racing - so that trainers could know with certainty what to expect from enforcement - a second objective gained discussion.

Instead of the 18 laboratories that currently test samples in this country, talk rose about one central, master lab, with cutting-edge technology and common consent of the governed to use it.

The weak link in this dream was exposed in Tucson, where a speaker on a panel of distinguished researchers noted candidly that state territorial imperatives complicated the goal, perhaps beyond attainment. Racing commissions zealously guard their provinces, universities proudly view their testing as the best, and states prefer the money involved in testing be spent within their borders.

An Associated Press report carried by the Lexington Herald-Leader announced that another huge British operation - this one the HFL testing laboratory that bills itself as the largest sports drug-surveillance laboratory in the world - has won approval for a $425,000 forgivable loan and $800,000 in tax breaks to bring its blueblood equine talents to the Bluegrass. American experts who have seen the HFL equine laboratory at Newmarket say it is state of the art and impressive.

The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority, apparently intrigued by HFL's drug testing reputation and the promise of 24 new Kentucky jobs - hopefully most manned by Americans - appears to be spearheading the idea, either oblivious to or unconcerned about the existing political ramifications in U.S. racing. Or perhaps inspired because of them.

Kentucky testing currently is conducted by the University of Florida lab under respected researcher Dr. Rick Sams. Keeneland has been pushing work directed by Dr. Don Catlin, the famous California Olympic drug tester. The idea of Kentucky samples going out of state and Kentucky money going with it has irritated some racing hardboots.

Given all that, samples tested by the British could be beyond tolerance in Kentucky. Who knows? Another battle of Lexington - southern division - could be in the offing.