04/17/2003 11:00PM

A statute deserving of repeal


You can count the number of clever and visionary things that New York City OTB has done in its 32-year history on the fingers of one mitten. Its decision to open its doors last Sunday, however, deserves three cheers.

When Sunday racing was legalized in New York in 1973, Christian religious groups, and the politicians who pander to them, successfully lobbied to keep Palm and Easter Sundays dark. Both exclusions are an obvious and offensive violation of church-state separation, but one could at least make a weak argument that Easter is something of a broadly recognized secular holiday.

The Palm Sunday racing ban, however, is thoroughly bizarre. Bennett Liebmann of the Albany Law School found that New York's racing ban is the sole mention of Palm Sunday in the entire canon of American statutes (other than the territory of Puerto Rico's stipulation that this is when the Democratic primary should be held). Every other track in the country, as well as every casino and lottery agent, is open the Sunday before Easter.

Getting the law off the books has proved harder than the search by Diogenes for an honest man, not surprising since it requires a speck of principle and courage from legislators. Few have wanted to be associated with a bill that will rankle a handful of religious purists. One bill actually made it as far as a draft last year but then died in committee.

OTB officials took a fresh look at the archaic statute a few weeks ago and saw that it mentioned racetracks but not OTB's. Technically speaking, which is the language of the law, they were not specifically prohibited from opening up and taking bets on out-of-state races. So they did, and handled $1.7 million.

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board had warned them not to open, and is expected next week to hit them with the maximum $5,000 fine for violations, though it is unclear whether the punishment will be $5,000 total or $5,000 for each of the 37 outlets that took action.

The appeal of the fine could make for a fascinating public hearing on the constitutionality of the law, but one thing is sure: The incident will probably lead to a repeal of the statute. Given a choice between enacting an even broader and more ridiculous Palm Sunday ban that would specifically include OTB's, and dumping a statute that should never have been in place, legislators may finally have an easy way to end the ban entirely.

Youbet stumbles in Wood

Youbet.com and the Television Games Network have enjoyed extremely different reputations as online bet-takers among dedicated horseplayers. Youbet has generally been perceived as a fan-friendly haven for serious online handicappers, while TVG is often criticized for tailoring its presentation to novices and emphasizing chatty features over hard-core betting information.

When both were faced with a decision over how to handle a pool-transmission failure last Saturday, though, it was TVG that did right by its customers while Youbet made a serious initial misjudgment.

The problem was that the Oregon-based mutuel hub both companies use failed to merge trifecta bets on the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct into the New York pool. It is standard practice when this happens for the bet-processor to honor the wagers. It's a cost of doing business. TVG not only credited winners with what they should have won, but also refunded losing bets.

Youbet got it all wrong. First it credited or debited everyone's account as if the bets had gone through, then 12 hours later it reversed itself and adjusted accounts as if these bets had never been placed - in at least one case leaving a customer, who had gone on to lose back his Wood winnings, with a negative balance. It was the equivalent of the racetrack sending a mutuel clerk into your home in the middle of the night to take winnings back out of your wallet.

Youbet justified its decision in an e-mail to customers by quoting language from the Oregon Racing Commission that refunds were mandatory. That's not the point. No statute prohibits Youbet from crediting what should have been winning bets as a goodwill gesture and a promotional expense. The decision, which justifiably outraged affected customers, is especially peculiar given the low trifecta payout of $83.50 and the relatively small amount of money the company would have had to spend on a make-good.

Youbet reversed itself again Friday and told Daily Racing Form that it will in fact credit winning bets. That's what it should have done before losing more in credibility and future business than it would have cost them to do the right thing in the first place.