12/14/2004 12:00AM

Passionate debate, but little progress

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The Ventana Canyon resort here in Tucson is a romantic spot at any time, but speakers at the Racing Symposium last week turned it into a raging passion pit.

First Tom Meeker of Churchill Downs and then Jim McAlpine of Magna Entertainment invoked passion as a new dynamic of racing, urging the fraternity to have passion, embrace change, and show vision.

Then, in a surprise to those who had suspected profit might have been the motivation, L. Wayne Gertmenian revealed to The Blood-Horse that it was passion - a passion for jockeys and their plight - that drove him to represent them as head of their guild.

Gertmenian's preoccupation with passion was brief.

He quickly replaced it with a snarl, again calling the people who run racetracks "mean-spirited and evil." He said jocks are called pinheads by these people, who tell jockeys that if they don't like it, they should go to work at McDonald's. He said that for 3 1/2 years he has been the recipient of nothing but disrespect.

Respect, of course, is earned, not bestowed. If Gertmenian longs for people to be passionate about him, he should stop calling them names.

With unintentional humor, Gertmenian said he had never seen an annual meeting "so collaborative and thoughtful" as his Guild session a few days earlier, where "everyone had the opportunity to speak." Everyone, that is, except for those who disagreed with him, or asked hard questions. Their fate was excommunication.

Passion aside, the Symposium was less than scintillating, and at times downright scary. Two things were clear: North American racing has no solid idea of what to do about betting exchanges, and we have not heard the end of Gertmenian's personal passion play about "masters and slaves."

Churchill Downs still is waiting for Gertmenian to tell it where its $1.5 million paid to the Guild in recent years wound up. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations is wondering about the fate of the $2.2 million a year that its tracks have been contributing to the jocks. Matt Hegarty of this newspaper told Gertmenian that he and others were having trouble confirming Gertmenian's self-stated super-secret advisory roles in Russia and Iran. Gertmenian told him they were valid, and said, "Leave it at that." Asked why millions were in the Guild's cash account, his answer was, "I'm not a chief financial officer. You'd have to ask someone who knows. That's not an area I pay attention to."

If members of the Jockeys' Guild are satisfied with answers like that, it's their business. If tracks who pay millions to the Guild are not satisfied, they are entitled to keep asking, mean-spirited or evil as that may be.

On betting exchanges, Eugene Christiansen, chairman of Christiansen Capital Advisors and one of the keener minds on the world gambling scene, told racing it had five options. He recited the first two with tongue in his eloquent cheek, saying racing could:

* Do nothing.

* Form a committee (which it did at the TRA meeting the next day).

* Adopt the argument that the competition was illegal, which he called the Napster response, referring to the still-unresolved issue of music file sharing on the Internet.

* Change its business model to include new lines of business.

* Enter the market with a competing betting exchange service.

The latter is Chris Scherf's personal preference, and his TRA board approved exploring the idea.

During discussions on the betting exchanges, the chief executive of the Australian Racing Board, Andrew Harding, and the executive director of the International Federation of Racing Authorities, Maurits Bruggink, both said the exchanges, which permit betting on horses to lose as well as win, are threats to racing's integrity and to racetracks' revenues.

Almost 50 years ago, as a young racing secretary, I introduced claiming races to harness racing in Chicago, to supplant the ABC system then in vogue nationally. Five years later, ABC races were gone. My reason was simple: Letter classification usually moved winners up in class, so in many cases it became more expedient to lose than to win. Racing can't live with that, or with betting exchanges that encourage betting on horses to lose.

For horse racing, regardless of breed, winning is the beating heart of the game. That heart needs to be protected and preserved.