12/12/2003 12:00AM

At least security was tight


TUCSON, Ariz. - For the first time anyone could remember, there were security guards posted at the doors to the ballrooms where the open meetings of the 30th Annual Symposium on Racing were being held this week, demanding to see attendees' official name tags certifying that they were official and paid-up participants. There was something both bizarre and charming about the apparent fear that ordinary citizens of Tucson might be scheming to drive to a secluded resort to get a free peek at panels of lawyers and bureaucrats discussing such topics as "Intellectual Property, What Is It?" and "The Changing Environment of Regulation."

The added security to foil outsiders was silly but may have provided an appropriate metaphor for this year's rendition of the closest thing that racing has to an annual state-of-the-industry gathering. The week's most important news leaked out of private problem-solving meetings, while the general sessions ranged mostly from the peculiar to the irrelevant.

The hopeful items were in the areas of tote security and medication policy, though neither topic was deemed worthy of a public forum. Officials of The Jockey Club and the totalizator companies emerged from private sessions to announce they are undertaking a new national betting network to replace the antiquated processes exposed by the Fix Six fraud of 2002. Fourteen months later, agreement has been reached to draft a business plan for a system where customers would wager directly into a host track's pools rather than through hubs, allowing monitoring of suspicious betting patterns and accurate odds that will not change during winner's circle ceremonies.

There also seems to be some progress toward a uniform national medication policy as regulators from virtually every state met privately to haggle over the semantics of proposed uniform rules that seem to have a reasonable chance of widespread acceptance. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the races and the betting pools, and while it's distressing that it has taken a crisis of public confidence to spur belated action on these issues, progress is being made.

As for the rest of the symposium, the 30th was not the best.

The opening session is usually an occasion for a wide-ranging consideration of crucial issues facing the industry, but this year's was more akin to a late-night infomercial on a public-access channel. The title, "A Time For Change," seemed relevant, but the session consisted of a "motivational speaker" named Ian Hill scampering around a half-empty ballroom with a wireless microphone like Dr. Phil on amphetamines, badgering mortified racing executives with self-help bromides. The presence of Hill, a self-described former Reno busboy and now president of "a Nevada-based, soon-to-be multimillion-dollar restaurant management and development company," may have been the strangest and lowest point in the symposium's 30-year history.

Other sessions offered familiar thinking. Track marketers said that big race days are important and should be special occasions, and horse owners said they should get more attention and see their names in headlines more often. As for the political mess in New York, the racing problems in California, new wagers, takeout, customer service, and fan development, well, maybe next year.

NYRA case a costly one

The formal announcement Thursday of the expected deal between the New York Racing Association and state and federal prosecutors ends another sorry chapter in New York racing history.

NYRA gets to keep its franchise and to be indicted but not prosecuted, in exchange for 18 months of probation and monitoring and a $3 million fine it can ill afford to pay. The fine will only further deplete available money owed to owners and delay needed improvements to facilities.

NYRA officials have no choice but to swallow hard and smile, and top elected officials are saying the resolution was fair and positive and proof that the system works, but no one should mistake this for an exercise in good government. This was a spiteful and politically motivated investigation that cost taxpayers far more money than the alleged crimes involved.

Prosecutors say that clerks avoided paying taxes on $19 million of underreported income over 20 years, which generously translates to $6 million in tax revenue. But because the plodding investigation delayed for at least six months the scheduled opening of a video-lottery facility at Aqueduct, the state lost something in the neighborhood of $100 million in projected VLT revenue and millions more in lost racing revenue from the debilitating effect the saga has had on New York racing.

The financial drain of the investigation and the fine may add fuel to a movement, already backed by some of the state's offtrack betting corporations, to reverse NYRA's laudable takeout reductions when they expire in June. So in the end, the betting public may end up paying for an investigation meant to raise the profile of politically ambitious prosecutors, amounting to a particularly perverse form of public financing of political campaigns.