12/13/2002 12:00AM

Rebate issue ignites impassioned debate

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Arguments for and against the controversial practice of awarding rebates to high-rolling horseplayers were voiced during a heated exchange between a professional gambler and racing officials at a panel discussion Friday morning, the final day of the Symposium on Racing.

The panel, which was intended to examine account-wagering issues, was conducted by moderator Craig Fravel, the executive vice president of Del Mar. Within 30 minutes, panelists began arguing spiritedly. Attendees said the exchanges, which occurred primarily between Dave Cuscuna, a professional gambler who receives rebates, and Timothy Ryan, an Australian racing official, represented the most spirited debate they had seen on a panel at the Symposium in a decade.

During the exchanges, Cuscuna maintained that the racing industry would lose millions of dollars in handle if he were unable to receive rebates. Alternately, Ryan presented arguments that the rebates were unethical transfers of wealth that put legitimate players at a disadvantage. Ryan said rebates reduce the effective takeout for professionals while increase the takeout for casual players. Ryan said the long-term effect of rebates will be to drive all nonprofessional players from the game.

"The parimutuel pool is a sacred trust," Ryan said. "The fact that you put everyone in the same pool means that everyone is on the same playing field. You can't mess with that."

Ryan added: "When one person gets an advantage, it becomes a race to the bottom. Just because it happens doesn't make it right."

Cuscuna, who specializes in pick six bets and twin trifectas, responded by saying that off-track companies should be free to reward their best customers. He said the industry could eliminate rebates if racetracks reduced the takeout rate so that he could turn a profit on his bets.

"The cost of the game has gotten too high to win without some sort of incentive," Cuscuna said.

Siding with Ryan, David Marshall, the chairman of Youbet.com, the account-wagering company, said Cuscuna was comparing "apples to oranges" when Cuscuna or anyone else tried to compare rebates to preferred-customer programs or volume discounts in other industries.

Marshall said that rebates were compromising the industry's attempts to demonstrate to bettors that parimutuel betting offered equal opportunities to all horseplayers.

"All it does is give [Cuscuna] better odds," Marshall said. "That doesn't help us attract new bettors. It just pushes them away."

John D. Sullivan, another panelist who is the legal counsel of Las Vegas Dissemination Company, supported Cuscuna's position, and so did a number of people from the audience. But many people acknowledged that their support for rebates hinged on the fear that enforcing a ban on rebates would lead to dramatically reduced handle on races. By some estimates, sites that offer rebates take in more than $1 billion in bets each year, or about 7 percent of the national handle.