08/26/2004 11:00PM

Lawmakers should take a pass

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - New York legislators have their priorities upside-down as usual when it comes to racing. They have failed to enact legislation addressing such trifling matters as the regulatory structure of the sport, the future of the New York Racing Association franchise, or the costly delay in bringing video-lottery terminals to Aqueduct. Thank goodness they have addressed the burning issue of the day: giving free admission passes to the families of owners, trainers, and jockeys.

The legislature's lone racing achievement this year, signed into law Wednesday night by Gov. George Pataki, changed the language of an obscure 50-year-old restriction on passes that had never been enforced until earlier this year. Under relentless and niggling scrutiny from federal prosecutors and court-appointed monitors, NYRA began observing the letter of even the silliest laws on the books, and owners began howling when they suddenly had to pay to get their spouses and children into Saratoga this year.

What is offensive about the legislature's addressing this issue the way it did is that horsemen's relatives were not the only people paying their way into the track for the first time. Another group that has had to begin digging into its pockets were NYRA's best customers, NYRA-One account holders who keep a $1,000 minimum balance in their accounts. They apparently didn't whine and pout as loudly as the participants' relatives, so no one went to bat for them in the lobbying and legislative process. Rather than completely repealing the law regulating free admissions, which it should have done, the legislature merely added language exempting only horsemen's immediate family members from paying.

So now we have a public policy that a jockey's wife or an owner's daughter who comes to Saratoga gets in for free, but the track is required to charge admission to the people who bet the money that supports the whole enterprise.

Let's not have the ugly and irrelevant argument over whether a trainer's son or a guy who bets $1,000 a race is more deserving of free admission. The point is that if the track is going to be given the discretion to admit one of them for free, it should be permitted to do so for the other.

Maybe no one except employees should get into the track for free, or maybe everyone should. Maybe grandstand admission should always be free and there should always be a premium if you want a seat or better-dressed companions in the clubhouse. Maybe people who bet a lot of money should get preferential treatment, be it in the form of passes, toasters, or rebates. Whatever the policy, it is a business decision that should be made by the track operator, not by politicians.

The idea that the government is even involved in free-admission decisions is absurd. There are no statutes governing who the operators of baseball stadiums, theaters, or casinos can reward with free admissions or meals, but when New York racing wants to hand out a clubhouse pass or a ham sandwich, the attorney general and the governor have to get involved.

Legislative sources say that when NYRA asked to be given the leeway to admit some customers as well as horsemen's relatives for free, they were told that only the latter group would be politically palatable right now.

The issue goes well beyond getting into the track without paying. Whether or not you believe in rebates and preferred service for high-volume customers, competitors for NYRA's business are allowed to offer them and NYRA is not. Why open a NYRA-One phone account, which now does not even get you free admission, when other phone accounts brazenly offer cash-back awards on handle that NYRA is prohibited from giving?

NYRA officials say that they are hopeful of being given the freedom to institute customer rewards as part of an omnibus racing bill still under consideration. If there is any silver lining to the government scrutiny being applied to NYRA these days, it may be a growing understanding by government officials of NYRA's competitive disadvantages in the modern gambling landscape.

"The more they learn about the business," said Steve Duncker, co-chief operating officer at NYRA, "the more they see that things like raising takeout are not the answer and that NYRA is losing business to people who can offer rebates and customer rewards."