10/18/2004 11:00PM

Native American tribes buy into racing

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The evolution of American racing in one man's lifetime - from a crowded racetrack with thousands of guys wearing fedoras cheering on the ramp, to 50 folks sitting sullenly or shouting obscenities at television screens, to the near future with wireless communication permitting betting from anyplace at anytime - has been a panorama of change.

During that evolutionary span there have been seers and scoundrels, creators and creeps, who have helped change the landscape. There have been visionaries like John Gaines and his concept of the Breeders' Cup, and Bill King, who turned little Louisville Downs into the first track to indicate where simulcasting would take racing, and Chuck DiRocco, who sold the idea to the glitzy hotels of Las Vegas.

There have been profit takers like Shawn Scott, who in quick succession bought and sold Delta Downs in Louisiana, Vernon Downs in New York, and Bangor Raceway in Maine, picking up millions at each stop but, to his credit, having the foresight and the energy and wits to see that slots could be coming or legislated in those jurisdictions, and making sure that they did by his own clever marketing and political maneuvering.

There have been the wiseguy offshore pirates of the Caribbean, some honest and some not, pilfering North American pools, and there have been the scary and shadowy betting exchange boys, knocking on the North American door and frightening everyone. There have venal politicians, totally unconcerned about racing but using it for their own political gain while destroying an industry of pride, as in Maryland.

And now, with developments last week, there comes a new entrant in the field: Native Americans, Indian tribes long subjugated and starved and squirreled away into barren and desolate wastelands no one else wanted, but suddenly returned to prosperity and respectability with slots, and as of last week to horse racing as entrepreneurs and track operators.

The first rumblings of that new development came in the state of Washington, where the Muckleshoot tribe paid $73 million for the land on which Emerald Downs sits and provided an infusion of $1.6 million in purses, with the announced intention of taking over that track down the road.

They were preempted last week when Penn National Gaming, faced with the dilemma of being able to keep only one operation in Pennsylvania under that state's new slots law, sold its harness track, The Downs at Pocono, and its five OTBs scattered around the state, to the Mohegan Tribal Game Authority for $280 million. Penn National bought the track, under the canny and astute leadership of Peter M. Carlino, for $47 million in 1996, speculating on the arrival of slots sooner or later in Pennsylvania. The track and OTBs produced a significant amount of Penn National revenues last year. But legislation is legislation, and after eight years of perseverance and profit, Penn National was forced to sell and will wind up with an estimated $175 million on the Pocono deal with the Mohegans. Patience pays.

What the Mohegans will do with Pocono remains to be seen, but if their Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut is any indication, they will turn it into a major resort and entertainment complex. The track sits between the grim and grimy coal fields of Wilkes-Barre and the lush vacationland of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountain resorts, and no one knows how to play those cards better than the Mohegans. Their tribal chairman, Mark F. Brown, said they will not be building a Mohegan Sun there, but also said that he envisions a renovation, upgrading, and expansion "that will provide for the next 13 generations."

So to the turbulent mix of changes in the last 65 years in racing, from Seabiscuit to simulcasting, add Native American ownership and management. Their huge success in casino operations might not automatically carry over to racetrack operation, but smarts are smarts, and the Native Americans have proved skillful and adept at providing what the gambling public wants.