Updated on 09/16/2011 9:44AM

An ounce of prevention . . .


WASHINGTON - When the alleged mastermind of the Breeders' Cup pick six fix pleaded guilty Wednesday, he brought horse racing's worst scandal nearer to closure. The three wrongdoers are likely to go to jail. The rightful winners of the pick six will collect their money, sooner or later. And the racing industry is taking aggressive steps to make sure that such a fraud doesn't happen again. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the sport has learned all the necessary lessons arising from this jolt to its public image.

On the same morning that former Autotote employee Chris Harn admitted his role in the pick six as well as another parimutuel scam, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association held a press conference announcing that Giuliani Partners would join with Ernst and Young in reviewing the country's wagering systems. The sport is calling on some heavy firepower as it tries to correct its problems, and its effort merits respect. Not all industries act this way. The big stock-brokerage and accounting firms had to be clubbed by regulators and threatened by lawsuits before acknowledging that they had a problem.

When suspicions arose about the pick six, the NTRA immediately called for an investigation and quickly formed a special task force on wagering technology. It demanded that Autotote and the other companies processing bets reform their procedures. With Giuliani Partners and Ernst and Young, the NTRA will undertake a review of past pick sixes and pick fours to determine if other frauds have been committed.

But, of course, all of this action comes too late to prevent the barrage of publicity that has damaged the sport. Racing didn't focus on the security of its parimutuel systems until after the Breeders' Cup pick six was making headlines. An industry that has historically attracted the attention of scam artists ought be vigilant in guarding against corrupt practices, but racing has a history of ignoring them.

The sport didn't exercise enough control over the tote companies it hired and didn't recognize the shortcomings in their technology and their security systems. This is not merely 20-20 hindsight. Two years ago, Mark Elliott of IBM Global Services told industry leaders: "You are as far behind in the use of technology as any [business] I've ever seen."

Revelations in the aftermath of the pick six have shown that this was a scandal waiting to happen.

Nor did racing officials even exhibit a healthy skepticism that might have prevented the Breeders' Cup fix. In early October, Harn and his confederates held eight winning tickets on a pick six at Belmont Park and collected more than $100,000. Yet nobody in the New York Racing Association thought it was unusual that eight winning tickets were sold at a single upstate New York offtrack betting outlet. Nobody at Catskill OTB thought it was unusual, either.

The three were brought down only by their carelessness and greed in betting the Breeders' Cup - what Rudy Giuliani Wednesday described as "exceeding the pig factor" - and not by any special vigilance on the part of the sport's officials.

As the racing industry proceeds full-bore to address issues involving the honesty of the parimutuel systems, most of its customers surely share the same opinion: This isn't enough. We all know that breaches of the tote system constitute a minuscule percentage of horse racing's integrity problems.

Virtually every racing fan in America believes that the sport is being permeated and poisoned by the widespread use of illegal drugs. Trainers come from obscurity to stardom overnight. They transform horses miraculously. They achieve winning percentages that would make history's greatest horsemen envious.

Yet in almost every important respect, horse racing has failed to address its most corrosive problem. The horsemen and industry leaders who favor a sane medication policy are intimidated by the cabal of horsemen and vets (mostly based in Kentucky) who say that modern horses can't run without the aid of chemicals. Drug-testing methodology lags behind the sophistication of the alleged fixers. When trainers are caught violating drug rules, they are most often giving slaps on the wrist - particularly if they have lofty reputations.

Stewards, racing commissioners, and track owners don't want to face the drug issue squarely for fear of stirring up scandals that will hurt the sport.

In this context, Chris Harn and his pals might have done the industry a great service. For if there is any lesson that horse racing should have learned from the Breeders' Cup pick six, it is this: Face up to your problems and solve them before, not after, they reach page one.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post