Updated on 09/16/2011 9:52AM

Scam probe may yet pay off


TUCSON, Ariz. - Tim Smith, the Commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, began the concluding session of the Symposium on Racing here Friday morning by saying that the NTRA's annual presentation would include a couple of surprises. Finally, after a week in which the Fix Six scandal dominated every informal conversation but without breaking any new ground in formal sessions, it seemed that some major news about racing's biggest story might be forthcoming.

Instead, the surprises turned out only to be the presentation of a lawn tractor to an official celebrating 20 years of service, and the screening of a trailer for the "Seabiscuit" movie. The tractor was very shiny and the trailer ("In a time of fear, the dreams of a nation rode on a longshot") was very sappy. Restart the presses.

The NTRA actually did a very solid job of recapping the Fix Six story to date and framing the resulting issues going forward. The NTRA's reasonable premise is that there are three primary areas of concern to customers and operators: changing the scanning protocols that allowed an Autotote employee and two confederates to alter multirace wagers after races had been run at least three times in October; updating pool-cycle technology to prevent the late odds changes that create the perception of widespread past-posting; and determining the extent of ticket fraud in the past.

According to the NTRA, new progressive-scanning technology that forwards actual multirace combinations after each race will be in place by the end of 2002. No one has addressed the details of this new protocol, and the tote companies, who backed out of a scheduled Symposium panel on advice of corporate counsel, have yet to say anything about how this will actually work. Still, fixing this gigantic loophole for mischief in two months' time will be a significant achievement, especially if it is accompanied by a credible and reassuring explanation of how it will prevent low-level software engineers from altering tickets.

Pool closings remain a vague and inconsistent issue, with repeated calls for uniform policies but no indication that tracks are moving toward any kind of agreement. There is also consensus that early closings should be a short-term stopgap until quicker cycling is implemented, but no specifics on when that might happen.

Things seem to be moving in the right direction on these two fronts, but uncovering the extent of previous frauds remains the fuzziest of the issues. Jim Quinn, the handicapping author (some of whose work has been published by DRF Press, an affiliate of this newspaper), has been conducting interviews and focus groups with customers on behalf of the NTRA and said that this issue has emerged as a major concern of players. He also said that the NTRA had found this "surprising."

They shouldn't, and they should be careful to appear willing to accept the strong possibility that there is more to this story than an isolated out-of-hand fraternity prank. It strains credulity that the Drexel Boys were the first to attempt to exploit an inviting loophole that tote officials have acknowledged for more than a decade. Hiring Ernst and Young to conduct a one-year review of multirace payouts, and hiring Giuliani Partners to certify whatever they find, is only a start to an investigative process that should include exhaustive interviews with present and former parimutuel experts who have been privately discussing the likelihood of such frauds for years.

Only then should the NTRA say, as Smith did Friday morning, that "there are no facts to indicate a widespread problem of wagering security."

In general, the NTRA has acted swiftly and professionally on this issue, and Smith was persuasive in arguing against the dismaying sentiment from some track operators that the NTRA has overreacted to the story. Smith said not only that a long and perhaps painful examination of this issue was necessary to ensure consumer confidence, but also that there will be some welcome silver linings to the process - improvements in wagering technology, some progress in industry unity, and beginning an overdue dialogue with the game's best customers.

Some true silver linings for horseplayers may emerge on that final front. Quinn, a longtime advocate for bettors, concluded his presentation by saying that three related issues had emerged from the focus groups that he hopes the industry will address: the unfairness of switching some multirace selections to favorites in the event of late scratches; the need for tracks and tote companies to develop interactive software to display more sophisticated probables and will-pay information on exotic bets; and the increasing illogic of I.R.S. withholding regulations in an era when more and more handle is shifting to bets with payoffs that are likely to exceed current thresholds.

"Don't just give us security," Quinn said. "Give us fairness, too."

A commitment to addressing these areas would be a sign of real progress in the industry's relationship with its unique brand of customers. As a commendable sentiment in one of the NTRA's new television advertisements points out, "Unlike football, unlike basketball, unlike baseball, the players here are in the stands."