01/11/2005 12:00AM

One board member who has it right


TUCSON, Ariz. - Racing commissioners, like the general population, come in all sizes and shapes, physically and intellectually.

Some are deeply motivated and dedicated, some satisfied with the title and prestige, some strangers to the racetrack when appointed and ever after.

So it is refreshing and encouraging, even exhilarating, to watch the fast break from the gate on the part of the breed's newest member, Richard Shapiro of the California Horse Racing Board.

Races are not necessarily won by fast early fractions, but if Shapiro keeps up the pace he has set since his appointment in October and first meeting in November, he will be hard to catch.

His appointment provides new insight and respect for Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was skeptical of his qualifications to be governor of California on the strength of his muscles, face, and prowess as the Terminator, but the man obviously has chosen smart advisers and listens to them. He did not know Shapiro when he appointed him, but he had very good advice and heeded it. He is likely to know him from here out, and so are those in racing.

Shapiro, unlike some of his predecessors of glory days gone by on the West Coast, does not think the racing world is flat, starting at Del Mar and running through Arcadia and Inglewood along the fault line to San Mateo and Sacramento.

Neither does he think the Thoroughbred is the only equine animal who races, having served time as a harness racing driver in his youth, when his father ran Western Harness Racing at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. His grandfather owned Native Diver, and Richard and his brother Tom own Thoroughbreds, so he has a wider ken and perspective than many of his peers.

He also does not scare easily, taking on Wayne Gertmenian as one of his first tasks. Shapiro is a political science and business graduate of Southern Cal and president of Winco Asset Management, a real estate company. As such, he is not overawed by academic accomplishments at the University of Idaho and Pepperdine, as many jockeys apparently are, and has not bought the "I'm smarter than you are" line that has kept Gertmenian's minions in line.

As head of a racing board committee to discover where California's payments to the Jockeys' Guild wound up, Shapiro announced that until he and his colleagues find out, the state will not be paying the Guild the $1 million it has shelled out annually from uncashed tickets. Jocks who object to that course of action will have a hard time striking the racing board.

Shapiro also is deeply concerned about medication, and with veterinary savants like Rick Arthur and Ron Jensen close at hand he can get a lot of help in keeping up to date. He has his own ideas on the subject, and they do not include permissiveness. That and the fact that his fellow commissioners have taken a deep interest in the subject makes the California landscape brighter than it has been in years.

The appointment of Ingrid Fermin as executive director to run the day-to-day affairs of the racing board in California is another positive development. As a former steward, she knows the game and talks the talk, in plain and sometimes blunt language.

Elsewhere, the swirl continues. Maryland's slot initiative is hopelessly deadlocked by politics as a new legislative session gets under way, a devastating development in a great racing state that needs help to stay that way.

New York is New York, where things move at a glacial pace and legislators know no shame in delay and procrastination. Nothing much happens in Albany, and what does happen in racing goes first to Gov. George Pataki for approval. Pataki wants five casinos in the Catskills, and if he gets his way those mountains may be renamed the Overkills. In Saratoga Springs, an editorial in the Saratogian sounded an ominous note, calling for more local oversight of Saratoga Race Course.

Pennsylvania moves ahead slowly with rules on its slots at tracks, but the wait will be worth it for tracks, since the state has the best racino law for racing in the country.

Promoter Shawn Scott of Delta Downs, Vernon Downs, and Bangor Raceway fame is back in the news, spending money in Washington, D.C. - $1.2 million, according to the Washington Post, in an effort to get a referendum for a casino and slots in the nation's capital. Based on past performance lines, don't bet too much against him getting it done.