12/24/2006 12:00AM

Public in the dark over jockey bans

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NEW YORK - Should the target of an ongoing corruption investigation, uncharged with any crime, be allowed to continue working while the authorities pursue their case? In most of walks of American life, the presumption of innocence dictates that the target is either allowed to pursue his livelihood until he is formally accused or, at worst, placed on some form of paid leave until his situation is resolved.

Joe Bruno, for example, announced this week that he is the target of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into his business interests, including ties to bidders for the New York racing franchise, but he continues to serve as the majority leader of the New York State Senate, brokering legislation and awarding contracts. Barry Bonds has yet to miss an at-bat for the San Francisco Giants because of a federal steroids probe and the indictments of his associates.

For 10 jockeys who were barred from three Eastern racetracks this week, it's a very different story. Citing their broad exclusionary powers, the tracks banned these riders for no specific reason beyond secret information they say they have received from an industry investigatory agency about an ongoing case. Neither the agency nor the track officials will comment on any specifics, citing the open investigation, which Daily Racing Form has reported may involve at least one race at Great Lakes Downs last summer on which some bettors at Delaware Park cashed suspicious wagers.

Most of the riders have declined to comment, on the advice of their attorneys, but some of them seem genuinely bewildered by what is going on.

"I am broke down over this," Joe Judice, one of seven riders banned by Tampa Bay Downs, told the local ABC-TV news affiliate. "They are not telling me anything. They are not asking me about fixing races, but I think there is someone out there cashing these big [bets], and we happen to be in these races, so they are coming after us."

The timing, coordination, and implementation of the bans and investigation are at the very least peculiar, and may smack of a wobbly case. If the authorities have the goods here, where are the formal charges? If races have been fixed and the public has been cheated, why is this being handled by racing's private detective bureau instead of state and federal law-enforcement authorities?

In this confusing atmosphere, the public is left to fear the worst while making the sport look medieval, bumbling, or both. Was this one tainted race where one jockey did something wrong and nine others heard something about it but are not cooperating to investigators' satisfaction? Or were 10 jockeys fixing races in widespread schemes?

The three tracks that issued the bans - Calder, Philadelphia Park, and Tampa Bay Downs - are all run by reasonable people who would not have wanted to tar their businesses with these possibilities unless they thought it was absolutely necessary. There's certainly some fire behind this smoke, but how much? If similar incidents teach us anything, it's that investigatory zeal sometimes trumps fairness and actual wrongdoing.

Two decades ago in New York, high-profile probes into supposedly widespread race-fixing in the late 1970's missed most of their primary targets but resulted in a one-year ban of Jacinto Vasquez for making an ill-advised joke to a fellow rider. More recently, the so-called Fat Jockey Scandal accused several prominent New York riders of systematically defrauding the public but turned out to be largely the product of an inept investigation.

Maybe the three track operators that issued the bans were so convinced by investigators' claims that they felt they had to protect their patrons immediately. Yet at least one other official took a more skeptical view.

"We're letting him ride," said Lou Raffetto, vice president of racing at Laurel, of his decision not to honor Philadelphia Park's ban of Alex Beitia. "I know Philly barred him, but I haven't been told by anyone what this investigation is about, and no one has made me aware of any details of what is going on. I don't think it's right to ban someone just because of someone else's opinion."

Eclipse selections

Eclipse Award ballots are due Wednesday morning, and after some agonizing in a few spots, here is how my list of equine champions will read: Street Sense (2-year-old), Dreaming of Anna (2-year-old filly), Bernardini (3-year-old), Pine Island (3-year-old filly), Invasor (older male and Horse of the Year), Fleet Indian (older female), Miesque's Approval (grass male), Ouija Board (grass female), Thor's Echo (sprinter), and McDynamo (steeplechaser).

As many as four more divisional Eclipse categories are being considered for future years, and each would have had an obvious winner this past season: Discreet Cat (miler), Dubai Escapade (female sprinter), Showing Up (3-year-old grass male), and Wait a While (3-year-old grass female). All four of these outstanding racehorses would have been worthy additions to the honor roll of official champions.