07/17/2003 11:00PM

Duped by the morality police

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As summer racing hits full stride with the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar this week, racegoers will increasingly confront a familiar seasonal sight at the tracks of America: children at the races. While a few especially grumpy horseplayers complain about the annual emergence of the tykes, they are a welcome sight to most of the racing industry, which has found in recent years that Family Fun Days and similar promotions are an effective way of getting parents to sample racing.

Children seem to love the horses and the sights, and the parents learn that a day at the races is an entertaining and inexpensive outing. It's a winner all around - except, of course, to the religious zealots, junk scientists, and self-promoters who make up the anti-gambling brigade.

Unfortunately, these activists recently found a prominent dupe in a Chicago newspaper writer, resulting in an appalling column entitled "From Cradle to the Finish Line" that ran in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune. The author, Tribune senior correspondent Greg Burns, is of course entitled to his bizarre opinion that racetracks are child abusers and merchants of misery, but he clearly is laboring under the influence of the usual disseminators of anti-gambling propaganda.

Burns began his piece by painting a picture of what awaits a family visiting Arlington Park - lush green lawns, pony rides, and a petting zoo. Quickly, however, he reveals that this tranquil scene is merely a hideous tool for an evil agenda.

"During a summer when Seabiscuit is poised to break out of the gates in movieland, the tots are becoming touts. The only thing unusual about Arlington Park is the shameless extent of the come-on. The racetrack makes no secret of its efforts to reel in a younger crowd. . . . Strip away the upscale country fair atmosphere, and what we have is Arlington Park peddling an addictive product to a largely unsuspecting audience."

With the exception of Arlington president Cliff Goodrich, who is given a few sentences to try to explain his job of marketing and preserving a popular sport and thoroughly legal activity, everyone quoted in Burns's column is a veteran of anti-gambling roadshows.

Tom Grey, a Methodist minister from suburban Chicago, spends most of his time traveling to any state considering gambling legislation, where he passes the hat on behalf of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. He regularly speaks at conferences such as the "Reclaiming America for Christ" convention, headlined by Jerry Falwell.

Burns quotes Grey as saying children don't belong at the racetrack because "You wouldn't put down $2 and order a shot and a beer for your kid." Huh?

Next up is Ron Reno, spokesman for Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based fundamentalist ministry that sells anti-evolution books. Reno says that because "horses are such a big draw for kids," the racetrack "sends some confusing signals."

For scientific rather than theological disapproval, Burns quotes Durand Jacobs, identified only as a professor at Loma Linda University. Jacobs is a longtime anti-gambling activist quoted in Focus on the Family literature for such ludicrous and unsupported contentions as "at least one in 10 teens engages in illegal activities (stealing, shoplifting, selling drugs, prostitution) to finance their gambling."

Grey and Jacobs are legendary for these sort of assertions, which are routinely repeated in the news media despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Anti-gambling spokesmen often say that 10 to 15 percent of all gamblers are "problem" or "pathological" gamblers, when real data suggest that the correct number is between 0.77 and 1 percent. Frequently quoted correlations between gambling and suicides or bankruptcies have been discredited. Even the congressionally chartered 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission, despite being packed with anti-gambling commissioners, ultimately concluded that "the vast majority of Americans either gamble recreationally with no measurable side effects related to their gambling, or they choose not to gamble at all."

The whole issue is especially ridiculous in regards to Family Fun Days because there is no evidence at all that the young attendees are in fact doing any gambling. Burns's fear is that "The rugrats with the big ears learn the lingo of betting and drink in the gambling mystique." He concludes his piece by saying that, "That bugler who calls the horses to their posts is starting to sound suspiciously like a Pied Piper."

Perhaps Burns thought up that tortured metaphor on his own, or perhaps he merely borrowed it from his source Professor Jacobs, whose anti-gambling stump speech is entitled "The Pied Piper Effect of Gambling." In either case, the only tunes being played here are the familiar false notes of the morality police, and it's too bad that Burns fell under their spell.