06/26/2003 11:00PM

An illogical double standard


NEW YORK - The Thoroughbred racing industry is often accused of moving at the speed of a sleepy turtle on major issues. Takeout reduction takes years, national licensing required a decade, and the quest for a uniform national medication policy remains unfulfilled after a quarter century.

Occasionally, however, racing responds with relatively blinding speed when a truly momentous issue surfaces - an issue such as Jerry Bailey's pants.

Three weeks ago, three jockeys sported corporate logos on their pants legs during the Belmont Stakes card. Bailey and Gary Stevens wore the colors of Wrangler while Jose Santos endorsed Budweiser. Their deals earned them a reported $10,000 to $20,000 apiece and included an agreement to wear a logo hat in televised post-race interviews.

Such arrangements are specifically permitted under New York racing statutes. The riders and their business agent in these deals, the Jockeys Management Group, scrupulously followed the rules, registered their intentions, and even went out of their way to inform Visa, the title sponsor of the Triple Crown races, of their plans.

After Bailey won the Belmont aboard Empire Maker, and he and his son, Justin, were interviewed by NBC while they wore Wrangler caps, Visa howled louder than the rain-soaked fans holding worthless Funny Cide souvenir tickets. Witnesses say that Visa officials immediately berated track management for allowing such a thing to happen. A day later, Visa spokespeople were issuing statements about "ambush marketing," and by Monday, industry officials were lobbying Cali-fornia regulators to change their rules about pants logos so that no Breeders' Cup sponsor would suffer similar indignities at the hands, or the caps, of the jockeys at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

"I'm just surprised by the whole reaction," said Bailey (one of several jockeys and trainers who has served as a paid endorser for Daily Racing Form). "You keep hearing that racing needs new money and new sponsors. Interest has never been higher in racing than right now and there's an opportunity. For the first time, Madison Avenue is coming to us instead of the other way around."

Even more surprising than the industry's reaction was the one from some fans. Numerous letters to this newspaper have characterized the riders as greedy and selfish. While this is a common wail about professional athletes nowadays, no one seems to begrudge mainstream sports stars the right to make endorsement deals. Why is a logo on Bailey or Santos any different from one on Tiger Woods or LeBron James?

Those objecting to the logos say that racing is different. There are purists who argue that festooning a jockey with advertisements is inherently tacky and that racing should be a logo-free spectacle. It's a lovely, utopian sentiment but about 30 years too late for racing. Paid corporate advertisements are all over the game, on tote boards, infield signs, saddlecloths and blankets, banners at the finish line, and even the credentials that reporters must wear around their necks. Why is it okay for Keeneland to sell the names of its races to automobile companies and breeding farms but not for jockeys to sell advertising space on their pants legs?

No other sport tries to make such distinctions. In the National Basketball Association, team owners sell the names of their arenas and every square inch of signage inside, but players are not prohibited from wearing corporate logos on their sneakers. Racing's double standard in this regard reflects its ambivalent attitude toward jockeys, who are independent contractors rather than employees and who are correctly perceived as having less influence on the outcome of a race than the quality of the horse they are piloting. It goes beyond that, though, to a kind of second-class citizenship in the racing community. It wasn't that long ago that they were still officially characterized as children or chattel by tracks who listed an open mount as "no boy."

When racing's marketers line up new sponsors, as the Breeders' Cup did this week with Dodge and Nextel, they celebrate it with a press conference, as well they should. When three jockeys do the same thing, the industry scrambles to keep them from doing it again.

Bailey didn't make any new friends at the credit-card company when he reportedly told the Seattle Times a few days after the Belmont that "I guess I missed the chapter where Visa invented horse racing," but he had a point. Visa's sponsorship of the Triple Crown does not supersede New York state law permitting precisely what the riders did on Belmont Day.

While it may be regrettable that we live in a consumerist society where anything that moves is fair game for a branding opportunity, given that racing has eagerly embraced that world, the jockeys should not be the only ones prohibited from profiting from it.