02/22/2005 12:00AM

Friends of all or just some?


TUCSON, Ariz. - A bright teenage grandson, reading about the grandly named Friends of New York Racing, turned and said, "Gee, that's really altruistic. Why would they do that?"

I was impressed with the kid's vocabulary, but even more with his logic.

Why would they do that? Why would very busy and very successful racing executives from California, Kentucky, Ontario, and Georgia band together to solve the problems of racing in New York?

I started to explain, but the kid also had read a wisecracking sportswriter who had written an acronym for the group's stated claims - FONY R - so he ran to the computer and quickly typed his own: Benevolent Altruists Loving Only New York, or BALONY.

I don't think either acronym is funny, because I happen to know most of the people behind this idea, and they represent many of the very best minds in North American racing. Their idea is a good one, but they should pursue it more than half assiduously.

If the people in this group really want to do this thing, and if, as they say, they hope to sway the New York legislature, they know what my grandson knows from his civics class: The best way to influence legislators is with unanimity, and with support at the grassroots level.

If the Friends of New York Racing are indeed interested in more than an early pitch for the expiring NYRA license, as Tim Smith insists they are, and if the board members really share, as Smith says, "a fundamental belief that racing is at a critical crossroads in the state, and are concerned about the industry's future, about the risks to jobs, farms, and small businesses if New York racing declines, and about flaws in its antiquated structure," they should do something easy that would double their numbers and make them twice as convincing and effective.

They should look around at the size of the harness racing and breeding industry in New York, at the number of jobs and small businesses those people and farms and tracks represent, and include them in their march on Albany. That really would promote the interests of New York racing.

The rewards that Smith and his associates are looking at and longing for currently do not include Yonkers Raceway or Saratoga Harness or Vernon Downs or Buffalo Raceway or Batavia Downs or Monticello or a future Tioga Park, all in New York. Nor does it include the huge Standardbred agricultural industry that feeds those tracks and provides their horses and trainers and drivers and trailers and feed and supplies that help drive New York's economy. If New York racing really is the Friends' concern, not merely Saratoga and Belmont Park and Aqueduct - all up for grabs come 2007 - then the broadest base of numbers they can muster the better.

Certainly if "New York racing" is the main concern, the state's harness racing and breeding industry could contribute, if not hard cash, impressive numbers that would swell the selling total into something far more convincing than rhetoric in Albany.

Three of the biggest participants in Friends of New York Racing - Magna Entertainment, Churchill Downs, and Woodbine Entertainment - also are harness track operators, owning, respectively, The Meadows in Pennsylvania and Flamboro Downs in Ontario, Hoosier Park in Indiana, and Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway in Ontario.

These participants know that racing can solve its problems better jointly than it can singly, and they know that idea has largely been rejected by racing over the years. They also should know that on the few occasions when it has been tried it has worked extremely well.

From the day 42 years ago, when the two sports joined forces to develop a vaccine against equine influenza, to a joint winning fight four years later, in 1967, to remove a federal excise tax on racetrack admissions, to another successful joint venture in 1978 that liberalized the advertising stance of the National Association of Broadcasters, to the more recent joint meetings of Harness Tracks of America and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and to the ecumenical Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, united action has produced and is producing significant results.

Longfellow was right in Song of Hiawatha: "All your strength is in your union. All your danger is in discord." Breeding prejudice will win nothing but narrow victories. If the Friends of New York Racing really means what the name says, they will widen their horizons.