12/12/2006 12:00AM

Racing confab had its high points


TUCSON, Ariz. - An uncomfortable cold wind, highly unusual for Tucson, blew for a week before last week's Racing Symposium here. Then, as if by intent or design, it stopped, giving way so the hot air of banter could be heard in the land, or at least in the spacious halls and meeting rooms of the Westin La Paloma, the Symposium's new home.

The usual buzz words of imminent danger were recited, like incantations, in full chorus. They included, not surprisingly, slots, medication, wagering integrity, marketing, new technology, and television commercials.

The commercials brought to mind that it was at this gathering, half a decade ago, that Go Baby Go made its debut, to cheers, before jeers brought down frenetic Lori Petty. Fame is fleeting.

Most of this year's agenda contained valid subjects, and the views expressed were interesting and informative. Beyond the chatter, an ever-growing number of ancillary meetings were held by various racing organizations, where substantive issues were discussed, and a few resolved.

To one observer, a few bright lights cast hope on the busy scene.

One was the announcement that the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has finally zeroed in on anabolic steroids, and if the inexhaustible Scot Waterman can talk racing commissions into facing reality and taking action, there will be progress on that front next year. Waterman was back in home territory. He is one of the many graduates of the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program who have gone on to major accomplishments in racing. He deserves an award for persistent performance and diligence working on the huge problem of illegal medication, and developing uniform penalties for them.

Waterman now has strong support in his consortium running mate, Dr. Rick Arthur. A former star private practitioner, Arthur is running California's long-suffering medication program with a firm hand, and is a powerful ally for Waterman, adding a strong, authoritative voice to Waterman's tireless administrative skills. They make a formidable 1 and 1A entry in a very tough field.

Another Race Track Industry Program star, Todd Pletcher, was on hand, telling of the problems trainers face from inconsistent penalties, and of his own woes. As if to underline them - and casting the familiar shadow of illegal medication over the Tucson proceedings - the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, spoke unanimously on the other side of the continent as Pletcher spoke in Arizona. It upheld Pletcher's $3,000 fine and 45-day suspension for the finding of the painkiller mepivacaine in the Pletcher-trained Tales of Glory two years ago, rejecting the argument that the substance reached the horse through contamination. The ruling affirmed the findings of Cornell University's Dr. George Maylin, New York's chief chemist, and rejected the inadvertent-exposure argument of Dr. Steven Barker of Louisiana State, Maylin's counterpart in Cajun country and a favorite of those who blunder or plunge into the morass of medication violations.

While this was going on, Woodbine Entertainment dropped the hammer on Canada's leading harness racing trainer this year, 25-year-old Cassie Coleman, ordering all horses in her large and startlingly successful stable to race out of Woodbine's retention barn. Two horses in the Coleman stable died in recent weeks. That calls for mandatory necropsies in Ontario, the results of which were not available as of press time, although Woodbine denied that the deaths were related to the retention order.

Aside from those issues, there was much talk - domestic and foreign - about jackpots as an inducement to betting on horses. Wagering officials from France, Sweden, and Australia told of the success of their jackpot pools: the Quinte in France, V75 in Sweden, and First Four in Australia. Those exotics are the biggest handle-generators in their countries, offering pools on the five top finishers in a race in France; a pick seven in Sweden; and a superfecta in Australia.

Speaking from the U.S. perspective, Mark Midland, vice president of racing operations for Louisiana Downs, said pick six pools are self-defeating, in that most pools revert to zero when won. He said that precludes them being a consistent marketing tool, and suggested instead withholding a percentage of all betting to fund ongoing, guaranteed sizable weekly jackpots. He said a quarter of one-percent slice of weekly U.S. handle of $300 million could create $750,000 a week for national jackpots. The buildup of such pools would result in what Midland called "a life-changing experience."

Give that man the Sensible Symposium Suggestion trophy for 2006, and start working on the idea for 2007.