11/05/2002 12:00AM

Fix Six one disaster; another looms

Email

TUCSON, Ariz. -Phil Johnson and Volponi were a great Breeders' Cup story - the septuagenarian trainer and his upset horse winning this country's richest race - but no one in racing could have anticipated what happened after they won. The story quickly was drowned in a raging torrent of wrongdoing that had nothing to do with horses, but rather with humans who bet on them, and with carelessness by the people who run betting.

Everyone now knows the story of the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick Six, and the fraternity brothers from Drexel, and the $12 bet with four singles and all-all, and initial declarations of how wonderful it was that one little lucky guy could win $3 million on a horse race, and how secure exotic pools are in our foolproof system.

What everyone may not realize is the enormity and totality of the tidal wave of news coverage that washed away whatever good may have come from the pool itself and indeed from the Cup that produced it; the invitation to disaster in the way it was handled at the tote level; the inanity of the initial denials; the early spin that was placed on the story trying to make it sound somehow beneficial to racing; and the stewpot of public relations handling from a dozen different sources, each seeking to fortify its own individual image.

The universality of coverage alone - in screaming headlines coast-to-coast, in big papers and small and many that otherwise give racing little or no coverage - was staggering. Most damaging was the sustained drumbeat, day by day, regardless of new developments or none, and the relentless rehashing of a story that reached the front page of The New York Times and the glaring eye of national news shows. The story reinforced in some minds the image of horse racing as simply another episode of television's Sopranos.

Tim Smith of the NTRA proclaimed on Friday that it was not yet possible to determine what damage to racing's integrity with the betting public may have been caused by the ongoing investigation.

Technically, that may be true, if he is measuring by handle alone. Hard-core bettors are just that, a hard-shelled breed not easily deterred by long held suspicions of skullduggery.

But the question of wider damage was answered by others, who are opinion-makers.

Maryjean Wall, Eclipse Award- winning racing writer of the Lexington Herald-Leader, wrote: "It's clear from the buzz last week that until betting equipment is overhauled, players aren't going to bet with any confidence that the product is secure."

Andy Beyer, the sage columnist of the Washington Post, took on Lorne Weil, head of Autotote's parent, Scientific Games, in a column headed, "We've just seen tip of iceberg." He chided Weil for not answering reporters' questions and for his jocular response to a friendly stock analyst that "I can't stand the sight of blood." Beyer said he couldn't either, particularly when it was his own, adding, "and I worry that my fellow bettors and I have been the ongoing victims of cheaters within the parimutuel business. The question I wanted to ask Weil in the conference call was this: How do you know this hasn't been going on for years?" Beyer never got to ask it on the call, but others echoed his inquiry.

One was Steven Crist in this newspaper, in a column entitled, "System Needs Overhauling." He recalled earlier suspicious episodes, and concluded, "This story is only going to get worse."

To try to prevent it from getting worse, racing's biggest guns held quickly convened conference calls, appointed oversized committees, and instituted new security measures. Tote companies acknowledged that technical skill can be compromised by human frailty (although one said it couldn't happen to them). Damage control was the order of the day.

The Breeders' Cup is a glorious day in racing, and Arlington's was special this year, held in the Taj Mahal of American racetracks.

The week that followed was a public relations disaster of huge proportions, attacking racing relentlessly in its most vulnerable quarter - integrity - with headlines implying the Pick Six was the Fix Six.

Tote security had been taken for granted until now. It will not be for the immediate future. Several officials, in retrospect, called the Pick Six protocol "a disaster that had been waiting to happen."

Another is waiting to happen. Illegal medication looms on the horizon. Despite protestations to the contrary, similar to the bland tote assurances before last week, it hangs like another Pick Six cloud in racing's darkening sky.