Updated on 09/16/2011 9:40AM

No time to sugarcoat things


WASHINGTON - Shortly after the Breeders' Cup pick six scandal erupted, Santa Anita was offering a special pick six of its own, with a guaranteed pool of $1 million. Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, sought to reassure bettors that the wager would not be corrupted, and he announced, "We are doing everything possible to make sure there are no abnormalities. We are changing locks on all the doors in the tote room. We are putting a guard on the central doors so no one gets in who is not authorized."

These measures, of course, were laughably irrelevant to crimes allegedly committed in cyberspace. While the Breeders' Cup was run in Chicago, a software engineer at the Autotote Corp., offices in Delaware allegedly used a computer to alter wagers made with at an offtrack betting site in upstate New York. All the locks and guards in Fort Knox wouldn't have made a difference.

Understandably, the racing industry is so worried about customers' loss of confidence in the parimutuel system that it is desperate to reassure them. But it has not yet done one thing necessary to restore trust: determine how extensive its problems have been. "One of the first rules of crisis management," said a racetrack publicity executive, "is to get all the bad news out fast." Instead, racing fans have been left to suspect that there is a lot of bad news yet undisclosed.

Of all the revelations coming from the Breeders' Cup investigation, none is more disturbing than information about the events of Oct. 5 at Belmont Park.

Exactly three weeks before the Breeders' Cup, Belmont had a large pick six carryover, one that generated more than $1 million in wagers. Chris Harn, the Autotote employee implicated in the Breeders' Cup scandal, is accused of rigging this one, too. One of his allies allegedly made a bet similar to the play in the Breeders' Cup, standing alone with the first four winners and using all the horses in the last two legs. He hit eight winning combinations worth $13,070 each. And nobody noticed that anything was wrong.

Autotote executives have insisted they have "warning signals built into the system," but no warning signals went off after the Belmont pick six. Catskill OTB paid off a six-figure sum to a bettor who held eight winning pick six combinations - something almost unheard-of - but no warning signals went off there, either. The New York Racing Association knew that eight winning tickets came from a single location, but nobody questioned that oddity.

"Now that we look back, Oct. 5 leaps off the page," Bill Nader, vice president of the New York Racing Association, acknowledged. "But I'll be honest - it wasn't on our radar screen then."

If the Belmont larceny could have escaped everybody's notice, then how many other pick sixes have been tainted? "That's the issue that keeps coming up again and again for bettors," said Jim Quinn, a handicapper who is a member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's special task force on wagering.

It is not easy for the industry to discover the extent of its past problems. Officials at a track can't simply query their own computer system and ask it to look for pick six combinations with four singles selections and two "alls." Reviewing a year of pick six results would be laborious and expensive. Moreover, some people in the industry don't want to look for the truth, fearing it would simply tarnish their sport further.

The NTRA task force has pushed for changes in the way tote companies process the pick six so that nobody can tamper with this wager in the future. And everybody is scrambling to restore bettors' confidence.

Churchill Downs Inc. announced this week that it will lock its betting pools about two minutes before races begin. This change is designed to mollify horseplayers who suspect that somebody is placing wagers after races have begun.

Although horseplayers frequently see horses' odds drop just before they cross the finish line, almost every tote expert believes this is one area of the parimutuel system that is reasonably secure. I believe so, too. I suspect that such drops in odds have become a cause celebre because gamblers have very selective powers of observation. They notice and remember the cases when late money drives a horse from 3-1 to 2-1 and he wins, and they ignore the evidence when a horse loses with the same pattern. Churchill Downs understandably wants to allay any perception of wrongdoing, but this change is just a cosmetic one that won't address a real problem. It's the equivalent of switching the locks on the tote room door.

What the industry has to do should be obvious: Review every pick six in New York, California, and other major racing states that had a substantial payout in the last year (or more). Find out if there were any winning combinations with four singles and two "alls." Discover if there were any other possible scams besides the trio involved in the Breeders' Cup scandal. And then get the bad news out. If the industry doesn't do these things, all of its positive actions will go for naught, and its customers will suspect that a whitewash is in progress.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post