02/12/2002 12:00AM

Class in America (a case of VLT's)


TUCSON, Ariz. - A lot of things in the world are difficult to understand these days, such as guys who shadily grabbed millions now thumbing their noses at Congress, and warlords thumbing their noses at us in Afghanistan.

On a far smaller canvas, some rhetorical logic in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where the issue of VLT's or no VLT's was to be decided this week, also is hard to understand.

I'm a Barry Schwartz fan, but Schwartz lost me in recent weeks in the ambiguous woods between Saratoga Springs, where he thinks VLT's are a terrible idea, and Ozone Park, home turf of Aqueduct, where he thinks they're wonderful.

I know the two communities, and understand their aesthetics and ambiance are as different as the clubhouse and the stable area. The shady trees of Saratoga are far prettier than the starkness of Ozone Park, but morality upstate and morality in the metropolis are not that far apart.

The deep concern for the bucolic serenity of Saratoga Springs expressed by Schwartz, the chairman of the board of the New York Racing Association, and Joe Dalton, the head of Saratoga's Chamber of Commerce, ignores the town's actual history, and what put it on the map in the first place.

It was not the mineral waters, the clean air, or the lovely vistas alone that led Saratoga Springs to celebrity.

It was a saloon and a gambling den that a former pug named John Morrissey set up 132 years ago on what was then Matilda Street and now is Woodlawn Avenue. He called it the Club House, and neither women nor local residents were allowed in its gambling rooms. But it drew outsiders to the town - loads of them - and they helped build Saratoga's popularity.

Morrissey died seven years after opening the joint, and his successors renamed the place the Saratoga Club-House. Then, in 1894, a man named Richard Canfield bought the establishment and gave it a touch of class. He added a Tiffany window and Italian gardens. He built a dining room with stained glass signs of the zodiac in a vaulted ceiling. Anti-gambling sentiment did Canfield in, and his casino closed in 1911. A half-dozen ritzy illegal casinos took over, and the city thrived.

Schwartz and Dalton worry that VLT's at the town's harness track, the Saratoga Equine Sports Center, would change the character of Saratoga Springs. They worry about parking and crowded restaurants and shops and rowdies at the harness track. They even think VLT's at the Equine Center could hurt the highly successful Saratoga Performing Arts Center, buried deep in a forest behind the storied Gideon Putnam hotel.

As for Saratoga Race Track, it is highly unlikely that VLT's at the harness track would affect the pool of equine talent that Saratoga draws. Its meetings still would retain preeminence as the nation's finest. Joe Dalton's real concern, I suspect, is not overcrowded restaurants but lottery commission control of the VLT's, rather than Saratoga control, and the distribution of VLT revenue that has led him to join in litigation challenging the constitutionality of the New York state law legalizing the machines.

I know the crowded streets and restaurants of Saratoga Springs in August, and the uncrowded ones the rest of the year. But I find it hard to make the moral leap that says it is against all that is good and noble to cross Nelson Avenue in Saratoga Springs to gamble at the charming little harness track, but perfectly okay to cross Rockaway Boulevard in Ozone Park to chuck it in on VLT's in a working-class community. Schwartz says he doesn't want VLT's in Saratoga Springs "out of respect for the community." Is there no respect for Aqueduct's hometown?

Schwartz and Dalton say they aren't against the harness track. Dalton says he wants to save the Equine Sports Center. But both campaigned vigorously against its fight for survival, and urged the county supervisors to vote against VLT's there, which the Troy Record found both strange and hypocritical, given Dalton's support for the "more social" appeal of the runners. That newspaper asks if the gambling lawsuit might be motivated by snobbery, and suggests editorially that Saratoga, "with its fabled gambling history and lore," is a logical spot for VLT's. It also says "if that means the favored tourists and society locals may be forced to rub shoulders with the hoi-polloi, so be it."

They should be used to it, if ancestry and August mean anything. There are plenty of opportunities right now to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi at Saratoga, even without VLT's.