06/08/2010 12:00AM

'Racino' a dangerous destination

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Thomas Friedman, the twice-weekly columnist of The New York Times editorial section and author of "The World Is Flat" and other influential books on world economics and sociology, is not a usual visitor to the racing pages.

Neither is Dr. Mohamed Abdulla El-Erian, the chief executive officer of PIMCO, the world's largest bond investor with $1 trillion in assets to manage.

The two combined on a recent Sunday, without ever thinking of horses or horse racing, to offer startling statements relevant to racing. It was Friedman's view that "we are driving bumper to bumper with every other major economy today, so misbehavior or mistakes anywhere can cause a global pileup."

That quote, and one from El-Erian, were startling because of their applicability to racing.

El-Erian wrote, "The world is on a journey to an unstable destination, through unfamiliar territory, on an uneven road, and critically, having already used its spare tire."

Substitute "racing" for "the world," and you will see the perfect fit. El-Erian's line describes succinctly the state of horse racing in North America today.

We too are headed to an unstable destination through unfamiliar territory, on a rocky road, with our spare tire used and useless.

Our destination is casinodom, alien to racing and fraught with danger, and our tire of public support is worn through and unraveling further with the belief that racing crooks have outdistanced racing chemists.

This can be difficult to understand for those who enjoy the beauty of the road, the romance of the Saratogas and Keenelands and Del Mars that line the journey along the way to nowhere.

Those folks love the journey, and the horse, and believe that everyone else does too. They are convinced and determined they can convert the infidels who don't, and bring them from the racinos to the racing side of the road.

That short hop physically is in reality a vast chasm. It is questionable if racing has enough people with exceptional communication skills to do the job, or whether it can find and afford them.

Writing about the best we have on the racetrack makes it difficult to even start the car. Any solid story line is interrupted either by the perceived need to race the best only infrequently, or by the physical fragility of the product itself, or the economic lure of the breeding shed.

The destination that all tracks are driving toward today -- shiny, glitzy, fast-action racinos -- is neither a permanent abode nor a safe one. The nine-year agonies of Aqueduct in getting its racino, and the abandonment of the Belmont by the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, illustrate the perils.

Getting racinos, without the asinine politics of a New York legislature, may be quicker elsewhere, but no less dangerous. Look to New Hampshire, where Rockingham Park, a 103-year-old racing treasure, is fighting for its legislatively licensed life.

Look to Maryland, where Laurel and Pimlico need every bit of road assistance they may get from Penn National, and slots as well, if they are to survive the knee-deep political potholes. Or Rosecroft Raceway, bereft of its chances to avoid total destruction by powers beyond its nearby Washington Beltway.

Look to Iowa, where regulators have thoughtfully denied new casino competition to Prairie Meadows, but the $59 million track on the prairie still stands threatened by the gleaming wolfish eyes of those who would like a bigger share of the road.

Facing all these threats, racing's spare tire -- the once romantic and historic and treasured lore of the sport -- has been blown out by constant ruptures. Like the thousands of hats one sees on men in pictures of racing ramps of the 1940s and 50s, public goodwill toward racing has disappeared. It has been stripped away by never-ending seasons of professional sports and by racing itself; by television coverage geared to the choir rather than to those not yet inspired by the lilting melodies of the turf; and by a realization that racing still is your grandfather's game, although your grandfather and others like him are gone and going.

Gone with them are the writers and broadcasters who knew and loved horse racing, replaced by several generations raised in front of a television set. Until racing decides it must afford people with the skills to get them back, and recapture the opportunities it squandered years ago on the tube, we are headed straight down Mohamed El-Erian's uneven road without a spare, and toward Thomas Friedman's inevitable bumper-to-bumper pileup.