11/04/2002 12:00AM

Close loopholes, send clueless execs packing


NEW YORK - On Friday, the same day a story on the investigation into the Breeders' Cup pick six scam appeared on the front page of The New York Times, the win prices of the winners of the second, third, and fourth legs of the pick six at Aqueduct were $44.20, $63.50, and $25. On a day when there was no carryover or guaranteed pool - in effect, there wasn't a disproportionate amount of smart money in the pool - this pick six seemed like a lock to carry over into Saturday. But, even though the parlay was a whopping $224,725, Friday's pick six was hit. There was one ticket, worth $36,528.

In all probability, someone got lucky, winning a lot with a little. You could reach this conclusion because there weren't many winning consolation (five of six) tickets. But you can bet, given the events of the last week, that when the prices were posted after Friday's eighth race at Aqueduct showing the pick six was hit, a lot of horseplayers thought, "Here we go again." For a fleeting second I know that I did.

Almost everyone who bets on horse races is now jumping at everything, including shadows. This illustrates how seriously the Breeders' Cup pick six scam has damaged the integrity of today's wagering systems. It seems like everywhere you go to get a bet down on a Thoroughbred horse race, the only thing everybody is talking about is the pick six scandal.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders' Cup have been pleasantly surprising, demonstrating an understanding of the importance of the betting public's faith in the betting process. But, the NTRA and Breeders' Cup can't stop there. There are several steps that must be taken to restore the confidence that has been lost.

* You can run background checks on everyone within 100 miles of a totalizator room, but the lure of easy millions may still turn a person with a spotless record. You can padlock doors and post guards outside tote rooms, but the fact is the Internet knows no walls.

Every loophole that has been identified in our betting systems must be closed immediately. If that means the so-called scan bets - which also include pick fours and superfectas, along with the pick six - have to close five minutes before post time so that all the data for every bet can be transferred before the race starts, so be it. Bettors are used to inconvenience, and the vast majority will gladly trade a little more inconvenience for the guarantee of integrity.

* If enough evidence is collected to file charges against the alleged perpetrators of this scam, they must be aggressively prosecuted. Some players want blood. They won't get that. But if there is a guilty verdict, there should be long prison sentences to go along with it.

* Before credibility can be restored, there is a mess to be cleaned up, involving the comments of Donald Groth, chairman of Catskill OTB; Lorne Weil, chairman of Scientific Games Corporation, the parent company of Autotote; and Brooks Pierce, president of Autotote, the company that handled the winning Breeders' Cup pick six wager for Catskill OTB. They should be told not to let the door hit them on the way out.

Groth had to backpedal after he said he was "familiar" with the winning bettor, when in fact this was the first wager placed through an account opened at Catskill only a couple of weeks earlier. Groth maintained that everything pointed to the "legitimacy" of the bet, when everyone else with at least a casual familiarity with the pick six knew the configuration of the winning ticket smelled bad. Weil actually said, "This matter has been resolved before any damage has been done." And Pierce said this story is "good for racing."

Charitably put, these comments demonstrated poor judgment. As the NTRA and Breeders' Cup showed, this was not the time for the usual industry reflex of circling the wagons or putting out a positive spin.

The comments demonstrated how completely out of touch these people are with their clientele. Clearly, the executives exhibited a lack of the savvy that is necessary to protect the betting public. If these men can't be trusted to protect the interests of the betting public, how can the people who work under them be trusted to do the same?

It is the money the betting public puts through the windows that drives the entire game. It is this same money that creates the need for organizations like the NTRA and the Breeders' Cup, and companies like Catskill OTB and Autotote. Without horseplayers, there would be no need for any of this, because, in an analogy I have used often, horse racing would become just like polo.