Updated on 09/17/2011 10:22PM

Latest scandal raises questions

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The indictment of two former New York racing officials last week for allegedly allowing jockeys to carry significant overweight in at least 59 races last year may seem like merely the latest in a long series of overblown, politicized, and absurd "scandals" at the New York Racing Association. In many ways, though, it is quite different and raises serious and disturbing questions about both the alleged impropriety and the way it was handled and investigated.

The tax-evasion scheme by mutuel tellers who were betting out of the till led to a criminal indictment of NYRA, a $3 million fine, and 18 months of scrutiny from a federal monitor, but was essentially a low-level accounting issue that did not cost the betting public a dime or compromise the integrity of the sport. Other breathless revelations, such as the nitpicking of executives' sloppy expense accounts or the shocking - shocking! - news that you can get a better lunch table at Saratoga by tipping the maitre d', were simply silly and overzealous attempts to discredit the organization.

The latest indictment, however, speaks directly to the fundamental fairness of a regulated gambling enterprise, whether or not you think a few pounds make a difference in handicapping. I don't, and would not have bet the Cigar Mile any differently whether Lion Tamer carried 115 or 122 pounds, but that doesn't matter. You simply cannot put on races while disseminating false information about the conditions under which they are being run.

Nor can it be excused because the entire issue of what total weight a horse really carries is such a murky one. Even supposedly correct weights are somewhat fanciful, since some pieces of equipment are included and others are not. It is relative rather than absolute weight that matters. You can't tell the public that Horse A is carrying five fewer pounds than Horse B if he's not.

The 116-page indictment does little to clarify whether this was a lurid scheme to defraud bettors or simply a case of two good-hearted but misguided officials looking the other way over an occasional pound or two. The indictment repeatedly refers to overweights of seven to 15 pounds, so large as to seem preposterous, which is what some of the jockeys have said while maintaining their innocence. There is no suggestion in the indictment that anyone involved wagered with the benefit of inside information. Instead, the indictment uses the somewhat tortured legal argument that by riding horses they should have been disqualified from riding, the overweight jockeys were defrauding their skinnier colleagues of mount fees.

What is perhaps most troubling about the entire matter is the way that it was addressed when it first began to come to light. NYRA officials have said that they initiated the investigation when they heard about possible improprieties at the scale more than a year ago. The appropriate response would have been for someone to step in and put a stop to it immediately. Instead, apparently because NYRA was operating under a deferred prosecution agreement and all sorts of regulatory scrutiny, paralyzed officials turned over their concerns to prosecutors rather than intervening themselves.

An investigation commenced, including surveillance at all three NYRA tracks, and evidence was collected on 67 "incidents" in 59 races run between June and December of 2004. In effect, then, it appears that investigators knowingly allowed these races to be run under tainted conditions for months in order to fatten the indictments against the clerk of scales and his assistant.

It is difficult to see how this approach protected rather than further deceived the public. Instead of fixing the problem, investigators appear to have allowed it to continue, in order to build a better case.

Whatever else comes out in the wash or at trial, the most recent indictments are another blow to NYRA's hopes of continuing to operate New York racing after its franchise is up in 2007. NYRA's prospects had been on the rise of late after receiving a glowing report from a federal monitor last month about its corporate reforms under new management, and then receiving a pass from further federal prosecution on the mutuel clerks' tax-evasion case. Now, however, those gains have taken a backseat to yet another troublesome case and, fairly or not, there may a growing sense that enough is enough.

The New York Daily News, for example, ran an editorial the day after the indictments were announced that began, "In what should be the final nail in the coffin of the New York Racing Association . . ." and went on to opine that some "riders could lose their right to race in New York. Hopefully, NYRA will meet the same fate."

If NYRA wants to escape that fate and regain the public trust, a good start would be a fuller explanation why dozens of races may have been run under the weight of false information.