12/17/2004 12:00AM

File these under 'B' for bizarre

Email

NEW YORK - If you have been wondering how to keep busy with no racing in New York or Southern California this coming week, you could try puzzling over a trio of recent industry events that are as baffling as any full field of maiden claimers.

The first was Wednesday morning's "raid" on Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga by state troopers dispatched by Eliot Spitzer, New York's Attorney General and likely next governor. Spitzer's office will not comment on why it scrutinized the taking of entries and seized cartons of records regarding weights carried by horses in New York, and New York Racing Association officials say they have no idea what spitzer is up to now. Sending in cops with warrants, rather than asking racing officials about whatever this new bee in his bonnet is, suggests Spitzer is looking to pin something nefarious on NYRA that might amount to a violation of the terms of its deferred prosecution.

The most inventive theory floating around is that after many months, someone finally called the widely advertised "Integrity Hotline" that Spitzer's office installed at NYRA, waking up the lonely hotline operator with some harebrained complaint about overweight jockeys. Or perhaps Spitzer has been reading the Jockeys' Guild's recent rhetoric and believes that there is a slavery ring he can fearlessly bust.

Only 24 hours later came the long-awaited formal announcement of the new "Friends of New York Racing" group for which Tim Smith left his job as commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. It was just a few months ago that Smith was headed to Gotham to be the new president of NYRA, where he was going to right the ship while simultaneously putting together a business model for a privatized version of NYRA that would bid for the franchise, which is up in 2007.

Then the court-appointed monitors Spitzer has babysitting NYRA these days disapproved of that proposed dual role, and Smith and NYRA decided it was more important for him to focus on a presumptive NYRA successor than on NYRA itself. Smith has since been working out of an office at The Jockey Club in Manhattan, with the help of that organization's staff.

Yet the FONYR group that was announced Thursday was not the widely expected NYRA/Jockey Club stalking horse but a sort of council of warlords of American racing, including some of the competing interests that hunger to succeed NYRA. Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs each put up about $100,000 for a seat at the FONYR table, along with the usual collection of industry stalwarts who pony up for everything from founding the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to throwing money at Giuliani Partners in the wake of the Fix Six scandal - The Jockey Club, Keeneland, Oak Tree, and Breeders' Cup.

Others providing seed money include Woodbine Entertainment and, of all people, Scientific Games Racing Inc., which used to call itself Autotote. NYRA itself is not a founding member, nor is any of the state's six offtrack betting corporations, or anyone representing the government or the public.

FONYR's press release, beyond which Smith is declining to speak for the record, states that the group will conduct research and issue recommendations for the future of New York racing by the end of 2005, right around when the state will issue formal requests for interested potential franchisees. What happens then? Does the FONYR board disband and start bidding against one another, and against NYRA? Or does everyone go partners on a franchise bid?

It's a very strangely constituted group that does not exactly smack of an independent, impartial effort in the public interest. While many of the FONYR founders may well have the best interests of the sport in mind, the group has the early appearance of a conclave of foxes issuing guidelines on future henhouse operations.

Finally, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's 22-member Sales Integrity Task Force on Thursday issued its recommendations to institute a code of ethics for Thoroughbred auctions. While taking some otherwise promising first steps, the group ultimately decided not to require the disclosure of hidden ownership interests by sellers and buyers, citing an overriding need for "privacy" in such transactions.

This is every bit as bizarre as Spitzer's raid or FONYR's founding membership. Why do people who buy and sell horses that are going to race for publicly funded purses at state-sanctioned tracks have a need for anonymity? The only possible motivation for concealing ownership interests is to deceive one of the parties to a sale or to manipulate bloodstock values through fraudulent transactions.

If this is really the way that buyers and sellers want to continue playing the auction game, they then have no right to wonder why there is a shortage of new owners eager to sit down and join them.