06/20/2002 11:00PM

Burned by a deal with the Devil

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NEW YORK - Once again, a federal bill that the racing industry initially supported has been turned into an anti-gambling statute that could cripple the racing business.

Just as the industry had to switch sides on last year's doomed Kyl Bill, this year's "Combatting Illegal Gambling Reform and Modernization Act" has become a Trojan horse. After working for months to ensure that the parimutuel industry would be exempted from this disgraceful legislation, industry leaders and lobbyists were horrified last week when a last-minute amendment by an ill-informed Utah congressman ended up imperiling rather than protecting not only account wagering but also interstate simulcasting itself.

The bill "is fundamentally flawed and unfair," the National Thoroughbred Racing Association said in a statement released Friday. "It fails to distinguish between legal and illegal activities that utilize the Internet as a means of communication. It fails to recognize horse racing's legal and regulatory status."

The only good news is that the bill is now considered unlikely to pass the full Congress, which means that we'll probably still have a racing game next year and that only our tax dollars will have been wasted in staging this annual charade. Perhaps now that the industry has been twice burned, there is a lesson to be learned about affiliating with the anti-gambling forces.

Politicians who want to legislate what people do with their own money and in the privacy of their homes are poor candidates for partnership and appeasement. Perhaps instead of trying to convince these moral zealots that in-home betting on racing is patriotic support for an agribusiness whereas in-home betting on poker or blackjack is the work of the devil, the racing industry might instead take the position that all in-home betting is the moral and practical equivalent of in-home stock trading and that grownups should be left alone to pursue it.

Chris Cannon, the loose cannon from Utah whose amendment imperils the racing industry, happens to be a right-wing Republican, but showboating and hypocrisy cross party and ideological lines. In New York last week, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a liberal Democrat, proudly announced that he had coerced Citibank into blocking its customers from using their credit cards to fund online betting. Again, there was no carve-out in his agreement with Citibank to recognize any difference between illegal offshore operations and state-sanctioned account wagering on New York Thoroughbred racing.

So good luck replenishing your NYRA-One or OTB phone-betting account with a credit card, and good luck to account wagering nationwide if this funding mechanism becomes unavailable in other states, which policy analysts say is likely following the Citibank agreement.

Advertising and its discontents

Purists who would prefer to see racing conducted without advertisements plastered on jockeys, horses, and tote boards lost that argument decades ago. It happens in every other sport and it's hard to argue that riders shouldn't be allowed the same opportunities for endorsements as other professional athletes, or that owners shouldn't be able to defray costs through sponsorship.

Still, it's disconcerting that the first outfit taking advantage of California's lifted ban on sponsored racing silks is Godolphin, the world's richest stable. This weekend, jockeys riding the horses owned by the ruling family of Dubai were scheduled to start wearing silks with a "Fly Emirates" logo, Emirates being Dubai's national airline.

Whether or not this is an ideal time to be promoting images of airplanes and the Arab world to American consumers, it's a strange advertising buy, if in fact any money is changing hands. Emirates Airlines does not service the United States, and it's doubtful many horseplayers in the grandstand at Hollywood Park this weekend were seeking a travel solution for their next jaunt from Abu Dhabi to Tehran.

Moreover, the idea of sponsored silks seemed to be to provide needed revenue for owners of modest means, not to give zillionaires a platform to advertise their other holdings. On the other hand, Dubai may have a cash flow problem if its oil runs out in a generation or two and the ruling Maktoums are not going to be able replace the petrodollars with their racecourse earnings. The Dubai World Cup is as much about promoting their country as an international resort destination as it is about racing, and it's no accident that so many of their horses have the word "Dubai" in their names.

It's difficult to reject a horse name that includes the name of a sovereign nation, but let's hope the sponsorship trend does not extend any further into the registry of Thoroughbred names. Aren't you glad that Whirlaway wasn't named Buycalumetbakesoda, that Bob Lewis chose Silver Charm over Budweiser Is Best, and that Mike Pegram went with Real Quiet instead of Big Mac Attack?