06/23/2008 11:00PM

Not a good seat in the House


TUCSON, Ariz. - Rick Dutrow was a no-show at last week's Congressional subcommittee hearing on the problems of Thoroughbred racing, saying he was too ill to attend. It is not known if he jumped or was pushed to that decision, and if the latter by whom. It also would be interesting to know who wrote his written submission, which began, "When I was contacted by one of your staffers and asked to speak here today, I agreed because I wanted to share my insights and points of view on some of these issues and I hope that I can be helpful here."

Not a "Got it, Babe?" in sight.

As for not showing up in person, Alex Marzelli, president of the Jockey Club, and Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, probably wish they had called in with the same blue flu as Dutrow. They were given a rough reception in Washington.

Both of these high-level racing executives were told by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, ranking member on the subcommittee, that their associations were powerless to do anything about racing's problems. Both said their contributions were as "consensus-builders" with the power of persuasion. Whitfield said he doubted even that.

When Marzelli was asked why he thought racing could clean itself up, he said, "For starters, I'm an optimist," and the vice chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, shot back, "Based on what?"

With all due respect to Marzelli and Waldrop, they were racing in some very fast company with Schakowsky.

Although many in racing were asking after the hearing, "Who was the lady doing most of the talking?" Schakowsky needs no introduction in Congress. She is chief deputy whip of the House and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence. She has been a social activist for 40 years. Those "Sell by July 1" imprints on food in your supermarket got there largely through her efforts. And she knows horse racing.

When she asked the carefully selected list of witnesses if they thought a central governing body would be a good idea, all hands went up except Marzelli's.

There were complaints from the uninvited. Ed Martin, president of Racing Commissioners International, spoke as if racing commissioners weren't represented, although Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, was there and said racing had created "a chemical horse." Remi Bellocq, executive director of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, lamented the absence of "the people who lead those horses over to the paddock," although Hall of Fame trainer Van Berg was there and said veterinarians are now training horses. Attorney Alan Foreman, executive director of National Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic racing alliance, said he would have been "chomping at the bit," had he been given the chance, to tell Congress about recent progress in adoption of uniform rules, but "I really don't think they wanted to hear that view."

What they did hear was breeder Arthur Hancock call racing "a rudderless ship," with no one in charge, recalling that former Maryland senator Charles Mathias had warned racing 28 years ago to clean up its act, but saying things have only gotten worse; owner of the Horse of the Year Curlin, Jess Jackson, calling the Jockey Club "a fiefdom, one of many in racing," and begging Congress for help; and commissioner Shapiro calling racing "a dysfunctional industry," a view echoed by sportscaster Randy Moss, who told the committee in his introduction that he was the racing commentator and not the football player of the same name.

A little humor did no harm, because the grim message - at least as most of racing sees it - is that there is Congressional sentiment to create some degree of federal control.

Ed Whitfield sounded the alarm when he said he thinks "we can use the Interstate Horseracing Act" to set out minimum standards. Schakowsky added, "Congress is already involved, since it granted racing unique status, unlike any other gambling operation in America, to transmit its product across state lines and receive wagers from bettors outside a state."

That, after all the sound and fury, was the message the subcommittee wished to deliver, with or without Rick Dutrow in attendance. It was the real story, missed by some media.

It is a warning that needs to be heeded, for Internet betting leads to the whole issue of simulcasting, now the bedrock on which more than 85 percent of betting on the game rests. If the Interstate Horseracing Act is reopened, who knows what that Pandora's box will yield, or what may be done to the contents?

Speaking of rudderless ships, who possibly can pick up the heavy oars that Joe Bruno leaves behind as he announced he will not run for reelection to the New York senate, where he has served for 32 years? He has been perhaps the most powerful state legislator in America, and one of the few who knows racing well.