10/04/2002 12:00AM

Gambling: Public Enemy No. 1

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NEW YORK - Anyone willing to concede that the racing industry is ultimately in the gambling business should be outraged rather than dismissive about what has been going on in the halls of Congress this past week.

Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill, by resounding voice vote and with no opposition, aimed at prohibiting Internet gambling by making it illegal for Americans to use credit cards or other electronic payments on gambling sites. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Racing officials and lobbyists have downplayed the significance of these measures, saying that state-sanctioned account wagering on horses is probably exempt. Maybe that's the case for now, but that does not diminish the outrageousness of the anti-gambling rhetoric commonplace among elected officials, and the likelihood that racing will ultimately suffer from it.

The representatives in the House didn't pass this bill because Internet gambling is a genuine cause of concern among their constituents. They did it because they're all up for reelection in a month and their pollsters are unanimous in advising them that it can't hurt to add "voted to stamp out evil menace to children" to their pitch to voters.

"Internet gambling serves no legitimate purpose in our society - it is a danger to the family," thundered the House bill's sponsor, Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa.)

"He's concerned primarily about protecting kids," said Bob Martin, a spokesman for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), author of the Senate bill.

Iowa has racing and slots and South Dakota has a state lottery and video lotteries, so Leach and Johnson can't propose that all gamblers be burned at the stake. So instead they create a fiction that gambling on the Internet poses a unique and compelling danger to children.

What does protecting children have to do with preventing grownups from playing blackjack or poker on their computers? Absolutely nothing. It's no easier for a minor to steal a credit card to gamble on the Internet than to steal a credit card for any other product or service. There is absolutely no evidence that this is a significant issue of any kind.

No one would dream of infringing on freedom of speech by saying you can't use a credit card to buy pornography or subversive books on the Internet, but there's apparently no freedom of recreation to use your modem and your Visa card to visit a virtual casino. You can pay by plastic to lose your retirement funds on stock-market scams but not to invest your own money on the turn of a card or, perhaps, a photo-finish. Where's the fairness or logic?

Racing is fooling itself if it thinks it won't eventually get hurt by all this. Several skittish credit-card companies have already made it difficult for horseplayers to fund their legal wagering accounts because they brand any gambling-related transaction, state-sanctioned or not, with the same scarlet letter. It also is unclear whether a necessary expansion of national, interstate account wagering would clear the proposed new legislation. Nor can it help racing in general for elected officials to be rewarded for opposing gambling and saying it serves no purpose in society and particularly endangers children.

Racing's argument that "we're not really gambling, we're a sport and an agribusiness and deserve special treatment and subsidies," is increasingly irritating to far more deep-pocketed gambling interests with whom racing would be ill-advised to pick a fight.

"We're going to continue to be in the spotlight," Greg Avioli, deputy commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, told Daily Racing Form's Matt Hegarty last week. "We keep hearing we have these unfair exceptions. It doesn't seem like it's going to die."

At least racing didn't get into bed with the Leach bill, as it did with last year's version of this phony crusade, the nearly disastrous Kyl bill, which might have destroyed interstate simulcasting. The next step is for racing to work actively against any and all Federal anti-gambling efforts, because it can't possibly be good for Government to continue asserting that gambling is the one thing citizens may not do in the privacy of their homes.

The best we can hope for is that the current legislative charade is so complete that the Congressmen will go home and take credit for preventing child abuse and then never actually get around to passing the Senate version of the bill.

Want to be even more cynical? It's easy. There's an argument that these current bills were really designed to shut down the independent offshore operators who made the right decision to get into the online gambling business over the last decade while the corporate behemoths of American gambling took a pass. Now those heavy campaign contributors want to take over Internet gambling. Does anyone doubt that in two years the likes of Leach and Johnson are perfectly capable of changing course and braying that we need to save the children by allowing big American casino corporations to expand onto the Internet?