08/16/2002 12:00AM

Round and round we go


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The Jockey Club's annual Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing will convene here Sunday for the 50th year. It's an admirable streak for the granddaddy of racing symposia, but the conference has become only one in a series of such meetings throughout the year, reflecting the industry's fractured nature and its lack of a definitive venue or mechanism for addressing the sport's problems and opportunities.

The Round Table is one of at least six such industry gatherings:

* The Albany Law School's Saratoga Institute on Racing and Wagering Law, which made its debut last year and was held here Aug. 6 this year, drawing almost every player in New York racing politics;

* The Round Table, usually conducted the Sunday before the Travers;

* The National Simulcast Conference, which is scheduled for Sept. 23-25 in Miami this year;

* The NTRA's Annual Meeting, which has been joined with its annual Marketing Summit, to be held in Las Vegas Sept. 30-Oct. 2 this year;

* The University of Arizona's Race Track Program Symposium on Racing, Dec. 10-13 in Tucson;

* The Eclipse Awards, and remnants of the Thoroughbred Racing Association's annual convention, which this year will be held in Los Angeles at the end of January.

An optimist might say it's a healthy sign that the industry indulges in so much navel-gazing. There are certainly more than enough issues to fill six agendas. On the other hand, it's unclear how much these conferences actually accomplish, and there has been a disturbing trend at many of them to spend more time on self-congratulation than self-examination.

Both the Round Table and the Arizona Symposium have in recent years given over their plum sessions to the NTRA to review its own activities and extol its own work. This sort of canned presentation is fine for the NTRA's own promotional events, but is out of place at gatherings hosted by supposedly independent entities. Increasingly it seems that the only chance for real debate or disagreement is if someone from Magna is included on a panel and shows up in a grouchy mood.

Of course the racing world has changed radically since the first Round Table, especially in the past decade. The Magna and Churchill conglomerations, and the emergence of simulcasting and offtrack betting as the true drivers of the industry, have completely transformed the sport. The most important issues today as far as track operators and customers are concerned involve wagering and simulcasting, but these areas seem to get short shrift at the conferences.

The Jockey Club, with its longstanding and admirable concern for the integrity of the sport, does its best when it turns its focus to the crucial issue of medication. Sunday's Round Table will prove interesting if, as expected, the increasing impatience and frustration among many owners and breeders at the highest levels of the game comes to the fore.

What isn't on anyone's agenda, though, is some honest discussion about in-home betting and television, the most important issue these days to customers and something that is starting to look like a missed opportunity for the industry. There is a complete disconnect between the industry's optimism of several years ago, when it thought that TVG revenues would fund the entire NTRA undertaking, and the thoroughly customer-unfriendly way that the account-wagering opportunity is playing out. Instead of proudly applauding meaningless year-on-year gains by the troubled outfits that have failed to deliver on their promises, industry stakeholders should be looking quickly at some entirely new approaches to electronic distribution of the racing product and at competing with the offshore operators who are doing the best job of catering to customers but are returning the least to the industry.

That crucial discussion is difficult to begin in an atmosphere where it is considered negative or unsupportive to question the current power structure's strategies and business relationships. While there are signs of real progress for which racing can give itself a brief pat on the back, the industry cannot afford to gloss over or ignore other areas of concern. Differences of opinion lead not only to horse races but also to a more honest assessment of the industry's true health and the possibility of improvement.