03/17/2008 11:00PM

Powers that be need give-and-take


TUCSON, Ariz. - Of racing's multitude of meetings, outnumbered only by stars in the sky, the one with the greatest potential for good convenes next Monday in Austin, Texas.

This is the first convention visit of Racing Commissioners International to the Lone Star State, and Gov. Rick Perry will be on hand to welcome them, confirming what all participants in racing know: these ladies and gentlemen have clout.

It is not so much the agenda of the five-day meeting that makes this gathering important. There will be the usual agonizing and some self-flagellation, of course, over illegal medication, wagering security, evolving technical systems, the work of stewards, uniformity, and model rules.

There will be talk about a National Racing Compact, the perspective of players, licensing issues, out-of-competition testing, and industry updates.

What sets this meeting apart is that the commissioners, alone among the participants in racing, possess the power to accommodate - or frustrate - racing's ability to change and survive in the dangerous years ahead.

A mixed brew of racinos, full-card simulcasting, illicit medication, online betting, a wildly expanded sports menu, technology, and a sea change in entertainment has led thousands to flee the ontrack racing scene. Faced with that, racing must change the presentation and distribution of its product. Horses still will have to circle a track, but racing will have to find new ways to package the excitement.

Its ability to do that depends, in large measure, on the men and women gathering in Austin next week. The key lies in one word, which does not appear on president Ed Martin's five-day agenda, but can determine racing's future.

The word is flexibility.

The task of remodeling and restructuring racing is not the work of racing commissioners. But they alone possess internal control, as opposed to external legislative control, over the industry. That awesome power to permit or deny experimentation and creativity dramatically affects all whose work it is to fashion reform. Track operators, breeders, horsemen of all stripes will need to rethink the formula. The appearance of a small cadre of futurists who see racing in a vastly different light - bright and knowledgeable men like consultant Joe Asher and executive Tom Aronson and others like them - is encouraging. These explorers - and they are - are limited in terrain by the people meeting in Austin next week.

Exploration and new approaches can be accomplished only with the willingness and flexibility of racing commissioners to allow changes to meet the challenges ahead.

A lighter touch on the state level

There is much grimness and little humor in the battles that state governors are encountering these days in their varied approaches to racing. In Kentucky, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland governors have been embattled. It was refreshing, therefore, to read the lighthearted bantering between Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and his house speaker and implacable foe, Sal DiMasi. Both spoke at a St. Patrick's Day breakfast gathering of 800 in South Boston. The governor wants to legalize three casinos, but not racinos. DiMasi takes a broader view. The winner in this battle that the Boston Globe calls "a political brawl" will have much to say about the survival of Suffolk Downs and Plainridge Racecourse. Defending his proposal, Gov. Patrick sang to the crowd, modifying the Foxwood Resort Casino's theme song with lyrics of his own, "Let's vote and build them nice and tall. Sal, just think about the wonder of it all."

Unimpressed and confident of success in derailing Patrick's casino plans, DiMasi told the crowd, and the governor, "Gambling bills are just like casinos. The house always wins." The state's senate president, Therese Murray, was on hand too (St. Patrick's Day is a holy day in Boston) and she joined the fun by wearing referee's stripes. A movie buff, she borrowed from "The Godfather" and "Braveheart," first telling DiMasi, "Leave the gun and take the cannolis," then advising Gov. Patrick to "Save the arrows and send in the Irish."

Another new governor, David Paterson of New York, also revealed a sense of humor that has carried him from Harlem to the abdicated Eliot Spitzer's throne. When a reporter at his first press conference asked him point blank if he had relations with prostitutes, he smiled and said, "Only the lobbyists."

Voters and racing will learn quickly to like this guy.