01/23/2007 12:00AM

Professor gives racing failing grade


TUCSON, Ariz. - As a boy, I was taught to respect and learn from my elders.

My father forgot, however, to tell me what to do when I ran out of elders, as I have now. So I do what I enjoy tremendously, which is to turn to my youngers.

Over the years I have done well, hiring and then sending into battle some of the best and brightest young minds in American racing. I will spare you the list, but chances are you know of most of them.

One who never worked for me, but still is a favorite younger, is Ben Liebman: racing man, collector of racing memorabilia, sage attorney, former member of the New York Racing and Wagering Board, and now master of the Albany Law School.

Listening to Ben's laconic wisdom is entertaining at any time, even now when racing faces some of its darkest hours. Enjoying the writing of an academic is the highest praise one can bestow.

I pulled out one of his speeches this week, looking for answers to the steady erosion of racing patronage. I'm not sure I found answers, but I certainly found reasons.

Ben Liebman thinks regulators and legislators - not management or horsemen - have messed up American racing. He speaks mostly of New York state, which he knows best, but his observations extend far beyond. Lamenting the loss of fans, he points out that in 1964 racing far outdrew baseball. The Yankees, winning the American League pennant for the fifth consecutive time that year, averaged 16,110 a game. Aqueduct averaged 30,000 for 210 programs. Yonkers Raceway averaged 25,400 a night on 131 cards.

He recalls the wild days when Bowie, 15 miles from Washington, drew thousands to the only major winter Thoroughbred racing in the East. Trains carried fans from hundreds of miles away, and on Feb. 2, 1961, one of those trains derailed about two miles from Bowie. Six people were killed, and many hospitalized. Those not badly hurt got out of the train and walked in the snow to Bowie. Red Smith described the scene: "Victims crawled out through shattered windows picking shards of glass from their ears and stumbled over the ties, asking, 'Are we in time for the daily double.' " It was not funny, but it was representative of what the American public thought of horse racing at the time.

Liebman, looking for those who killed enthusiasm for racing, says by and large it was government. He is a minimalist, and thinks government has done far too much to regulate the sport. He notes that horse racing and boxing are the only sports that state governments control, and that in other sports "elected officials are out there doing their share - at least rhetorically - for management and fans." He asks who is looking out for racing.

He laments the raise in takeout, saying: "Racing hasn't been just a political football, it's been a bipartisan scrum. Justice in racing has been nonexistent."

He points out that in New York there has been a denial of lower takeout, an irrational denying of rebates, poor law enforcement, delays in administration of justice, lack of transparency in state government oversight. He says horse racing is inhabited by rulers "who spend much of their time blowing up legislation, plotting against other people in racing, and trying to block anything that would change the status quo."

I don't agree with everything Ben Liebman says, but I agree totally that racing needs innovation and change in its product. Liebman says regulators should stick to making sure that horse racing is honest. And he admits, "Again, we could do better here."

He recalls Zippy Chippy, the horse who went 0 for 100, and says the state "may not be Zippy Chippy, but we're close to the 1962 Mets or 2006 Knicks." He believes tracks and other participants, not states that lack the expertise, should be making the financial decisions in racing. He says drug testing has been woefully underfunded - "just part of the budget game." And he concludes, "If you're going to undertake to run a sport, run it right." He thinks rotisserie or fantasy betting might bring young people back to the sport, saying "geek games" are what players want.

To read more of this insightful look into racing by an expert, write to Ben Liebman at the Albany Law School. Ask him for a copy of his state of racing speech. Then sit back and be entertained. Or upset. Your choice.