02/24/2006 1:00AM

Service with a suspicious smile


NEW YORK - If you walk into a casino and bet $9,000 on black or red at the roulette wheel, you don't have to show your driver's license to the croupier. If you go to the mall and plunk down $5,000 in cash for the newest hi-def TV set, you only have to cough up your name if you also want to buy a service contract.

But if you want to purchase a $3,000 voucher to play the races at Aqueduct, or make a deposit or withdrawal of that size from your NYRA One betting account, you now have to reveal your identity, produce personal identification, and wait while a mutuel clerk writes up a report that may be furnished to prosecutors investigating money-laundering. Congratulations: You're officially a suspicious individual.

This new NYRA policy, unique in American racing, was never announced or explained to customers. An initial news report miskakenly said these new requirements also applied to $3,000-and-up wagers, but track officials said Friday they cover only voucher purchases and account transactions. Even so, that only makes the policy appear even more misguided and illogical.

If NYRA needs to be monitoring anyone's betting, a shaky proposition to begin with, the very last people it should be harassing are its account holders, whose names, home addresses, and social security numbers are already on file from when they opened their accounts. These are exactly the people who should be exempted from any further scrutiny, not that anyone deserves scrutiny for betting on horses instead of playing roulette or buying a television.

Account bets are treated like ontrack bets, returning the same high percentage of takeout to track operations and purses. Account holders, whose handle is higher than average, should be rewarded with rebates and incentives as the track's best and most valued customers. Apparently they should be showing up with brown paper sacks of cash to bet with, since that doesn't automatically get you written up but making an account deposit or buying a voucher does.

And why go after people who buy a voucher so that they can bet on self-service machines rather than wait in betting lines? Does someone actually believe that criminal masterminds are hoarding those oily little slips of paper in Swiss lockboxes? Or is the assumption that anyone who wants to bet $3,000 off a voucher in the course of an afternoon is probably up to no good?

There is a longstanding federal requirement that most cash transactions in excess of $10,000 must be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. NYRA instituted the $3,000 threshold in these selective cases entirely on its own, on the "advice of outside counsel," according to Pat Mahony, the vice president of parimutuel operations. Attorneys always advise people to keep detailed records of everything, but it seems odd that no other racetrack, casino, or any other business that comes to mind has instituted similar requirements. Maybe NYRA just has better attorneys.

Or maybe it's not entirely coincidental that NYRA has been the target of several investigations by ambitious prosecutors who have spent millions in public funds to reveal nothing more important than some mutuel clerks cheating on their personal tax returns. This was trumpeted by the politicians behind it as a successful prosecution of a fraudulent money-laundering conspiracy and the beginning of a new era of transparency and fiscal accountability. So now NYRA holds itself to some imaginary higher standard of integrity, cutting off rebate operations that many other tracks are happy to continue doing business with, and instituting new house rules that do nothing but alienate its best customers.

Two Aqueduct mutuel clerks said this week that several big bettors who used to spend their afternoons at the Big A have already moved their action a few miles east to Nassau OTB's Race Palace, a sumptuous teletheater which, like every other betting outlet in the state except Aqueduct, does not subject its customers or account holders to NYRA's new thresholds. This brings the inanity of the situation full circle: NYRA has spent much of its existence arguing that its profits have been ravaged by an OTB system that receives preferential treatment from legislators. So now NYRA, either under prosecutorial pressure or some self-imposed Boy Scout ethic, institutes a policy that is driving some of its best customers straight to OTB.

Other high rollers may stay put once they figure out they can avoid these new and unwarranted intrusions simply by keeping their deposits, withdrawals, and voucher purchases to $2,999 or less at a time - though doing so with an intent to evade detection probably constitutes some sort of heinous crime.