11/15/2002 12:00AM

Patchy changes = no solution


NEW YORK - For better or worse, there is no section of the United States Constitution that addresses the inalienable right to wager on every parimutuel pool in existence or to do so during the millisecond before the starting gate opens. Nor does racing have any organization with the authority to impose consistent national rules on these matters.

So instead, in the light of the pick six scandal, individual states and tracks are scrambling to impose new policies, creating a regulatory crazy-quilt:

o Churchill Downs last Wednesday began closing its pools both on and offtrack with 0 minutes to post time and has refused to accept account wagers from simulcast locations that do not make audio recordings of voice and touch-tone wagers.

o The New York Racing Association has announced that beginning Dec. 4 it will close offtrack pools at 0 MTP but allow ontrack and NYRA-One account wagerers to continue betting until the gate opens.

o Racing commissions in Illinois and Ontario last week banned pick four and pick six wagers altogether, both on their own racing and on incoming simulcasts.

Each of these decisions already has sparked passionate debate.

Churchill's early betting cutoff has plenty of detractors among last-second bettors who complain they are now being penalized for the inability of the tote systems to cycle money without delay. Bettors have also raised legitimate issues regarding their inability under the new rule to cancel or adjust their tickets if there are late scratches or other incidents at the starting gate.

Having said that, on balance the decision was reasonable on a temporary basis to address a crisis of confidence. The long-term solution obviously is quicker cycling, but until that happens this is not the time to fuel customer paranoia by running races where the odds are changing at the top of the stretch.

The NYRA policy is based on the same concerns but raises an entirely different issue because of its two-tiered approach. Should ontrack bettors enjoy an advantage by being able to bet later than offtrack customers?

The actual advantage may be somewhere between slim and illusory, but it seems sure to alienate the offtrack customers who account for the vast majority of NYRA handle. It also has the appearance, if not the actual intent, of providing an incentive for customers to wager on-track or through NYRA-One phone accounts, venues on which NYRA retains a larger percentage of handle.

NYRA has every right as a business to try to motivate customers to attend the races and bet through mechanisms that increase its profitability. There are, however, other means to do that, such as rewards programs that do not give the impression of an uneven playing field. If you're closing offtrack betting early to quell an unfounded fear that people are betting after the bell, why create a new unfounded fear that ontrack sharpies have an unfair edge through last-second betting?

The harsh decisions of the Chicago and Ontario racing commissions to ban all pick four and pick six bets at least attempted to address the actual issue at the root of the current crisis: the delayed transmission of multirace betting combinations until after some races have been run. The unilateral and unconditional nature of these bans, however, smack more of grandstanding and paternalism than of thoughtful and constructive regulation.

At a time when state racing commissions should be working together, these two outfits have taken the position that they are holier than New York, Kentucky, California, and every other jurisdiction that continue to offer multirace bets under increased scrutiny while awaiting a technological solution to delayed-transmission bets. If Illinois and Ontario do not trust the regulation of racing and wagering everywhere else in the country, why are they taking any simulcast bets at all? Rather than working in concert with other states and proposing reasonable timetables for procedural changes, these commissions have panicked and undermined national consumer confidence.

The ban on simulcast multirace bets is largely symbolic anyway, since any determined Illinois or Ontario horseplayer can simply open an out-of-state phone account to play those New York pick fours or California pick sixes.

This trio of regulatory responses has a couple of unfortunate things in common. First, they are a reminder of racing's utterly feudal nature and its inability to act in concert on anything at all. If Churchill, NYRA, and Magna Entertainment can not even agree on what time to close betting, how is this industry going to accomplish anything really important?

Second, all of these responses, however well-meaning, ultimately amount to one thing: further restrictions and inconvenience to the customers, rather than a solution to the inadequate technology and security that caused this whole mess.