10/16/2006 11:00PM

Different idea across the sea


TUCSON, Ariz. - Almost 30 years ago a group of racing leaders, many of them lawyers and some bitter adversaries, sat around a large table in Washington, D.C. - more than once - and hammered out what became the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978.

The prime movers of the group were R. Richards Rolapp, the dynamic lawyer who led the American Horse Council at the time, and died far too young, and Michael Shagan, then vice president of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. Mike, a racing lawyer of wide experience and later an omnipresent consultant seen at all major racing gatherings, still is with us, bent in body but very sound in mind. Also present in those formative Washington gatherings was the late Donald D. MacFarlane, a Detroit corporate lawyer and founder of Harness Tracks of America, a master negotiator and arbiter who could have solved the Middle East crisis, if asked.

The sometimes stormy sessions, at which those and other powerful men in racing deliberated and debated, led to compromise and the legislation that days ago spared American horse racing from the national Internet betting ban voted by Congress. That new law, a latter-day Prohibition that will wind up, like the first on booze, unenforceable and ultimately repealed, does not include horse racing, because of the actions of that group of movers and shakers of the 1970's.

Some today, including Steven Crist of this newspaper, think that racing will not benefit from its exemption because it will be too lethargic and short-sighted to take advantage of it and exploit it with vigorous promotion of legal online wagering, simulcasting, and account betting.

Others, like attorney Martin Owens, who specializes in online gaming problems, wrote in Interactive Gaming News that "The very people the Department of Justice and the Republicans claim to be fighting - the pirates, the wise guys, the fly-by-night brigade - these residents of the shady side feel no responsibility toward the public. They're there for the money, period. And Bill Frist has just handed them a new lease on life."

Frist, the Senate majority leader and presidential wannabe who pushed the bill to passage, is a bright guy, but apparently not bright enough to understand that you cannot mandate or legislate morality. The new ban is largely unenforceable, and people who want to gamble will find a way online, federal prohibition or not. The Las Vegas Sun headlined Liz Benston's feature on passage of the measure, "Ban is more politics than poker."

Conversely, while Frist and his colleagues thought Internet betting was so dangerous to the welfare of the masses that it required federal restraint by tacking it onto a port security bill to protect us from ourselves, our allies across the pond in Great Britain were pursuing precisely the opposite course.

Although Betcorp closed its U.S. operations and Sportingbet sold its U.S. business line for $1 to avoid huge losses by closing, the British government was moving to make itself the online gambling capital of the world.

It was, in essence, calling its far-flung chickens home to roost, offering those who had flown to Gibraltar and the Isle of Man and elsewhere inducements to return to London.

The Lottery Post website reported that, "In stark contrast to America . . . ministers want to attract offshore companies to Britain. . . . Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a government charm offensive is well under way. They show that the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport has lobbied the Treasury on behalf of online betting and gaming firms to introduce a favorable tax regime." The service said, "Over the past two years, ministers and officials of the department had met with representatives of the Internet gaming industry on 26 occasions." It also said a government brief written for a meeting with Mark Davies, the managing director of Betfair, stated, "It is government-wide policy, and that includes HMT [Her Majesty's Treasury] that Britain should become a world leader in the field of online gambling, in order to provide our citizens with the opportunity to gamble in a safe, well-regulated environment."

That's far, far distant from the fear and philosophy of our peerless leaders in Washington.

The English, of course, were smart enough to colonize these woods in the first place. Apparently they're still smarter than we are.