12/16/2003 12:00AM

Fates blind to shakers and movers


TUCSON, Ariz. - When the heavy hammer fell on Las Vegas promoter Shawn Scott late last week and the New York Racing and Wagering Board denied him and his chief lieutenant and convicted felon Hoolae Paoa licenses to operate in the state, Robert Burns and John Phillips came to mind.

You know Burns, who wrote, more than 200 years ago, that "the best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley." I'll tell you about John Phillips in a minute.

Scott had grabbed economically distressed Vernon Downs, between Syracuse and Utica in central New York, hoping to repeat his hundred-million-dollar score at Delta Downs in Louisiana. What happens now to Vernon and its racing and racino is an interesting question. Others are waiting in the wings to take over.

The New York racing board pulled no punches in refusing to license Scott and Paoa. In blunt and direct language it told them, in identical letters, "Your experience, character and general fitness are such that your participation in racing or related activities would be inconsistent with the public interest . . . or the best interest of racing generally."

That is bold and gutsy talk for a racing commission.

Scott probably will sue, as he has elsewhere, and as he is currently in Maine, where the racing board is meeting this week to consider his application for a license to run a racino at a little harness track in Bangor. It remains to be seen if a state like Maine will license a guy who is persona non grata in racing in a place like New York.

Scott's lawyer, one of many, said the New York decision should have no effect on Maine. That's whistling in the dark Maine woods.

Misfortunes befall people of all stripes, of course, some self-inflicted, like this one, and others beyond the control of good people who come breathtakingly close to major success and then fall on the slippery floor of fate.

One such mishap befell a topnotch racing executive named John Phillips, who 19 years ago came within a hair of building a racetrack between Seattle and Tacoma in Washington. There is one there today, of course - Emerald Downs - and it is within a stone's throw of where the pilings of Phillips's Auburn Downs were laid in 1985 before fate intervened.

Phillips had moved upwards, of course, from being a clerk to a racing secretary to a general manager, and a very good one. He knew racing as well as few other men do. He was convinced a mile track would succeed in Auburn, and he found financing from a New York high flyer who specialized in demolition of big buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere.

I testified at a hearing of the Washington State Racing Commission in Seattle, and I remember Barbara Black, then the chairwoman, asking the New York investor what would happen if his $6 million pledge to Phillips was not enough. "I'd simply give more," he said. "My line of bank credit is $37 million."

Ms. Black gave Phillips and his investor two or three weeks to come up with the cash. The investor returned to New York, and suddenly Phillips couldn't reach him. He flew there, but the money man was unavailable. Phillips flew to Boston to visit a brother, finally got through on the phone to his money man, and was told that the demolition king's empire had collapsed, and he could not do the deal. John Phillips hung up the phone and dropped dead, and Auburn Downs with him.

Had the track been built, Phillips would have been a millionaire when, five years later, the Alhadeff family tossed Longacres and its horses and horsemen into Puget Sound for the $100 million that Boeing paid them for the track. If Auburn had been built, Phillips would have had a $10-12 million dollar dual purpose mile track ready and racing, and there would have been no $59 million Emerald Downs.

Fate plays tricks on the good and the bad, and on favorites and longshots alike, without handicapping which is which.