Updated on 09/15/2011 1:02PM

Racetracks blew a sporting gesture

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NEW YORK - Is the Thoroughbred racing industry a professional sport like those whose popularity it envies, or a gambling enterprise like any other room full of slot machines? That question was answered bluntly this week by the industry's response to Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the United States, and it may change forever the way that American racing is perceived.

Virtually every other professional American sporting event this weekend was canceled out of respect for the massive loss of civilian life on the Eastern seaboard. There are no professional baseball or football games, no golf tournaments, no NASCAR or National Hot Rod Association races. Major league soccer and minor league baseball have scrapped the rest of their seasons. Boxing matches and college football games have been postponed.

Racing, however, is the singular and stunning exception. Only Belmont Park and The Meadowlands, both within 25 miles of the carnage at the World Trade Center, were shuttered through the week. Both tracks took entries intending to reopen Saturday, then reversed themselves Friday and announced they would stay closed through the weekend.

The mutuel machines were whirring at four American tracks Wednesday and at 14 on Thursday while the search for 4,763 missing and presumed dead continued. The game was back in full swing at 26 tracks Friday while the rest of the nation observed a day of prayer and remembrance.

This blindingly quick return to racing in most of the country still wasn't fast enough for some people. The owner and breeder John Harris, a member of the California Horse Racing Board, criticized Bay Meadows near San Francisco for canceling its Wednesday card.

"I do feel that glorifying terrorists by shutting down American activities is not prudent," Harris wrote in an e-mail to Bay Meadows president Jack Liebau that was widely circulated within the industry.

He added, "I frankly expected a bit more fortitude from Bay Meadows. I wish we were in an era where decisions were made because something was the right thing to do, not because some spin doctor thought it might 'look bad.' "

Reasonable people can have honest differences of opinion about the taste and propriety of conducting racing this past week, and there is no universal answer to how long a period of mourning should last or how large a body count must be to bring an industry to halt. There are also questions of proximity and of individual economics. The decision is very different for the New York Racing Association, a not-for-profit corporation with year-round racing, as opposed to Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., 3,000 miles from ground zero with only 18 days of racing a year.

There's also something to be said, sensitivity aside, for Harris's argument. At what point is an effort to resume a life that includes entertainment a resilient rather than an inappropriate response? A number of New Yorkers have found comfort in emerging from their homes and tentatively engaging in simple diversions as a way of at least briefly escaping or denying the horror downtown. If movie theaters and restaurants are open, why not racetracks?

Deservedly or not, racing will be judged harshly for its actions. Already, the nationally syndicated New York radio host Don Imus has branded track operators as "gangsters" for opening their gates. This weekend, racing will be about the only live event available for the sports sections of the nation's newspapers, and it is inevitable that some of the other open space will be filled with similarly critical commentary.

Racing behaved more like the casino industry than like the professional-sports organizations, not only in its decisions but also in the way those decisions were reached. Tim Smith's title at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is commissioner, but unlike football's Paul Tagliabue or baseball's Bud Selig, Smith can neither speak with one voice on behalf of racing nor tell owners how to run their franchises. He and other officials strongly urged tracks to stay closed at least for Wednesday, but four tracks would not stop even that single program, and the rest of the operators outside the blast range voted to resume racing by Thursday.

"All sports, including racing, are in uncharted waters and trying to do the right thing," Smith said Friday. "People are agonizing over the right thing to do. Other sports have collective scheduling power, but as long as racing continues to be set up the way it is, that's just not possible for us."

NYRA and The Meadowlands absolutely did the right thing by reversing their weekend plans. Whenever racing does resume in the New York metropolitan area, it is going to be emotionally rough for many. There has always been a significant Wall Street component among both horseplayers and owners in New York racing and there are going to be some absent friends.

As for the rest of the country, the decision to continue racing, right or wrong, will forever brand and define the industry. The other sports shut down; the casinos didn't. There's no more uncertainty about which side of that fence is the one where racing lives.