04/19/2005 12:00AM

Racing has a big-time credibility problem


TUCSON, Ariz. - I realize you have heard far more than you ever wished to hear about, or from, Jeff Mullins, Martin Wygod, and Julio Canani.

There is a saturation point to foolishness and folly and fumbling around, but there are two more things you need to hear.

One is from the man who started all the fuss with Mullins. The other is from one of the brightest minds in American racing.

If you are from Los Angeles you know who T.J. Simers is, for his sports column in the Los Angeles Times is widely read and enjoyed, except perhaps by the wildest loyalists of the Lakers or Dodgers, frequent victims of his ire. You might also know him if you lived in San Diego or Denver or Memphis or Morristown, N.J., or Beloit, Wis., or Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, or DeKalb, Ill., because at one time or another he wrote for papers in those cities before moving to Los Angeles in 2000 and instantly becoming California Sportswriter of the Year.

It was Simers who first quoted Mullins's remark that anyone who bets on horses is "either an addict or an idiot." Shortly after that, Simers wrote that he would never write about racing again. But last Sunday he did, saying he owed an apology to Mullins.

Simers said Mullins was right. He wrote that outside of gambling addicts, "everyone else must be an idiot to wager on horses these days knowing now how much the public is being deceived."

What set Simers off this time was not Mullins, but an earlier incident involving trainer Vladimir Cerin. Simers wrote, "Cerin ran a milkshake horse, too, and if that wasn't enough, he said the horse had surgery allowing it to breathe, and as a result the horse, a huge longshot, won on the day of a Pick 6 carryover that paid more than $200,000. Cerin said the public had no right to know about the throat surgery, and apparently the milkshake it got served. What else is he keeping secret?"

Simers wound up writing that he has been subpoenaed to appear before the Santa Anita stewards on the Mullins matter, and concluded, "There's some legal maneuvering going on, so I don't know if I'll be involved in the hearing, but how do you punish a guy when he says the fans are being played for fools and all the evidence suggests they really are?"

This, from an award-winning writer who has covered sports from coast to coast, is what horse racing faces in its quest to regain lost respectability. If we don't do something about transparency, we're in deep media trouble.

A slightly different view comes from the second commentator you need to hear. He is Ben Liebman, the former New York horseplayer and later distinguished racing commissioner who now heads the racing law program at Albany Law School.

Liebman writes some of horse racing's most penetrating essays on his law school Web site, www.als.edu/racing. He currently has a fascinating analysis on the site titled, "Wygod, Canani and Sweet Catomine: What Are the Issues?" Liebman writes as a lawyer, not a sportswriter, although his writing, like Simers's and other top sportswriters', is both interesting and humorous.

Liebman refers to the "actions detrimental to horse racing" rule as racing's "garbage can rule," and calls it "typically the last resort of racing regulators." As a law professor and former racing commissioner, he says, "On a very personal subjective note, whenever racing commissioners resort to this rule (except when a licensee has cursed out the stewards) you generally know this is going to be a questionable case. . . . Anytime you resort to this rule, you are on a very slippery slope. . . . By saying good things about their horse's condition that they knew to be untrue, the principals of Sweet Catomine were being deceitful to bettors. But this is the most slippery of slippery slopes." He goes on to say it happens frequently, invoking hallowed names like Wayne Lukas, Buddy Delp, and Bobby Frankel.

Liebman does not condone this, but his bottom line is this: "Whatever the results of the Wygod case, horse racing needs to stop dealing with these 'trainer, owner, jockey comment' cases on an ad hoc basis. There has to be a clear code of conduct as to what trainers and owners are allowed to say about their horses. In the absence of a clear code, racing commissioners can seriously look like a bunch of clowns - and that is surely detrimental to the best interests of horse racing."