02/20/2004 12:00AM

Players' points worth heeding


NEW YORK - When the National Thoroughbred Racing Association created a Players' Panel to address bettors' concerns in the wake of the 2002 Breeders' Cup Fix Six scandal, the immediate goal was short-term damage control. The long-range result, though, is an important report released this past week that could greatly improve the game if it is heeded.

The , compiled by 11 high-profile horseplayers under the direction of handicapping author James Quinn, is a thoughtful and sober eight-page document containing 66 specific recommendations in seven areas.

Its professionalism and conciseness are nearly as important as its content, making it immune to the usual dismissal of horseplayers' suggestions as the rantings of disgruntled losing gamblers.

The panelists did not try to reinvent the game and wisely stayed clear of offering advice in areas outside their scope of expertise. There is no attempt to mandate new dosage levels of medication or to rearrange the stakes schedule. Nor is this a political and philosophical document that takes contentious positions or is in any way disrespectful or inflammatory. The suggestions instead focus on the small details that define the larger wagering experience, with a common theme of creating greater clarity, convenience, and fairness.

The recommendations in key areas include:

* Pool integrity: Odds-cycle times should be reduced, win pools should be given transmission priority, last-second cancellations should be eliminated, and greater transparency should be provided for late and canceled wagers.

* Takeout: The industry should educate legislators about the beneficial effect of takeout reductions, and tracks should be given greater regulatory freedom to lower takeout and experiment with rates.

* Taxation: Increase odds and dollar thresholds for Internal Revenue Service reporting and withholding, allow bettors the same accounting considerations as other businesses, and tax players on net profits rather than gross payouts.

* Scratches in multirace wagers: Adopt rules similar to those in New York to offer refunds or consolations rather than switching bettors to post-time favorites they may be deliberately betting against, and make the remaining horses in late-scratched coupled entries runners for purse money only.

* Field size: Create greater accountability for scratches made for nonmedical reasons, and permit arbitrary scratches only in full fields.

* Customer service: Improve the quality and consistency of simulcast signals, odds, and will-pay displays, and increase rewards programs and fan-education efforts. This is the last and longest section of the report, with 18 specific bullet points addressing crucial details including information services, simulcast graphics, and television-camera positions.

The panel only briefly gets murky when it comes to the murky area of rebates, reflecting the delicacy and difficulty of that issue. Quinn himself has said that he began the process opposed to rebating but came to believe that rebates do increase overall handle and ultimately are beneficial. The five recommendations in the rebate area are the least specific in the report, basically concluding that "Any mechanism that either directly or indirectly lowers takeout rates will result in greater handle, profits and a healthier industry."

My only quibble with the specific recommendations is the proposal that odds and payoffs for some types of bets be displayed in $1 increments and others in the traditional $2 system, an unnecessary and confusing policy when the $2 standard has worked just fine for more tha a half- century. If even half of the panel's other 65 other recommendations came to pass, however, they can post superfecta payoffs in drachmas and we'd still all be better off.

Some of the panel's suggestions could be implemented tomorrow with minimal effort by attentive track managers, while others will require widespread industry support and legislative efforts. The first and best thing track operators should do is read the report and consider it a checklist to re-examine their current policies and procedures.

The NTRA was clever to set up a Players' Panel and smarter still to embrace its work and allow it to broaden its initial scope. Officials there say that the report was sent to a wide range of industry organizations for comment, but response so far has been distressingly light. It would be a shame if all the good work of a group representing more than three centuries of combined customer experience were ignored.

The racing industry has belatedly asked its customers what they think. The question now is, will it listen to what they have to say?