05/31/2004 11:00PM

Pataki's plan would be a good start


TUCSON, Ariz. - This is not about a kid from Philadelphia named Jones.

It is about a man in Albany named Pataki.

Regardless of what glorious things the Jones kid accomplishes this Saturday, once the cheers and furor of the Triple Crown die down, George Pataki, the governor of New York, plans the Herculean task of cleaning out his state's Aegean stables, the accumulated sludge of duplicative administration that has plagued New York racing.

He will do it by diverting the river of centralization right through the whole mess.

The controversial and troublesome Thoroughbred Capital Investment Fund - created to allow racetracks to borrow from themselves for the purpose of making capital improvements - which has so tormented the New York Racing Association, will be gone.

The Racing and Wagering Board will disappear.

The lottery commission will be absorbed.

The breeding and development funds, Thoroughbred and harness, will be placed under control of the agriculture department.

And all the power represented by those groups will be invested in a new Gaming Commission, which will run racing, racinos, and the lottery.

People still will need to transact the everyday business of racing and gaming, so many, if not most, of the patronage jobs will remain.

But the governor of the Empire State, despairing of administrative bickering, has decided that his racing and gaming empire, like others in history, needs a Supreme Council, and he and his sidekicks in the state Senate and Assembly will appoint one that will run all things gambling. Just as the new council in Iraq will answer to Washington, this one will answer to Albany.

Even if all this happens - and with Senate strongman Joe Bruno favoring the idea, it is odds-on to happen - the changes won't be obvious at first to the two-buck guy at the windows.

The spacious vistas and sweeping turns and good horses will remain, both at Belmont and under the leafy canopy of Saratoga, but the sport will be run from a centralized command post in the state capitol, by a Group of Five.

Clean sweeps in commissions are not new in racing. Governors appoint state racing commissions all over the country as rewards for political loyalty, and often for little more. The new governor of Kentucky, Ernie Fletcher, is a refreshing exception, removing a worn-out regime and staff that had embarrassed Kentucky and replacing it with a group of people who know racing of all breeds, and understand what the breeding industry and racing mean to the state.

It will be interesting to see whom Pataki will choose for his new supreme command. He will get to make three choices, Senate President Bruno one, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver one, if the Pataki proposal flies.

Mike Hoblock, chairman of the soon-to-be-demolished Racing and Wagering Board, has done a solid job in running that body, dispensing justice with fairness and firmness, and with geniality as well. Commissioner Cheryl Ritchko-Buley, despite her purely political background, immersed herself in racing and has learned a lot in a short time. There is a good chance that both, chosen in part for political considerations but having overcome them to turn into worthy commissioners, will be retained at the new central command. It can only be hoped that Pataki, having been stung by criticism in bouncing Bennett Liebman, the most knowledgeable racing commissioner in America on both racing and racing law, will have the good judgment and political grace to reconsider his mistake and put Liebman back where he belongs.

Whoever is appointed and anointed will have far-reaching power.

"The sweeping reforms we are proposing will fundamentally restructure and strengthen the regulation of gaming and horse racing in New York state," Pataki says. "By centralizing all of the state's regulatory functions for gaming under one agency and providing for stronger oversight, we will eliminate redundant functions, remove obsolete entities, and instill a higher degree of accountability that will promote confidence in racing."

If this is more than fond hope and lofty rhetoric, New York will be on a straighter, truer course to recapturing the racing greatness and esteem that it held in former years, and Pataki may have found a quick-fix aspirin to cure his constant headaches created by the tangled administrative mess now in place.