03/26/2002 12:00AM

Take a tip from Ontario


TUCSON, Ariz. - Stanley Sadinsky, the chairman of the Ontario Racing Commission, is not a big man physically. After a holiday meal with two desserts, he might hit 150 pounds.

He is a heavyweight, however, among racing commissioners, with a reach long enough to stretch from Toronto to Trenton, N.J., and his influence extended that full distance in recent weeks.

Several years ago, the Ontario commission was reorganized as a separate entity, administratively and economically free of the provincial government. Sadinsky was named chairman, a very tough administrator named Jean Major was installed as director, and no limits were imposed on the commission's powers to fine and suspend.

Last year, Sadinsky took advantage of those powers, and fined a trainer and an owner $350,000 each, and suspended each for 10 years, for fraudulent operations, including shadow training and hidden ownership.

He also fined the trainer's wife $50,000 and suspended her for 10 years, and fined a second "shadow" trainer $100,000 and suspended him for 10 years, and levied heavy fines and suspensions on nine other defendants.

A furor followed, with a horsemen's organization approving $20,000 toward the defendants' legal fees, and then pillorying Sadinsky and his staff.

The shrillness of the response did not bother Sadinsky. He is a university professor of law, and he believes that penalties should fit the crimes. His action in the case in which he levied the huge fines came after an 18-month investigation, and he had irrefutable evidence as to what had transpired.

Two months ago, after the shouting and tumult had died down, and after several hearings unveiled the evidence, the case was settled quietly after plea bargaining. The two major defendants agreed to accept $100,000 fines and five-year suspensions, and the 11 others involved accepted fines totaling $262,000 and suspensions totaling 56 years.

Early this month, Sadinsky's influence was felt in New Jersey. The racing commission there announced plans to institute new penalties, raising the present fining limits on stewards and judges from $500 to $5,000, and on the commission from $5,000 to $50,000.

Wrist slaps for violations in racing in North America are damaging to the sport and its image, and the legal problems in prosecuting them are even more troublesome. Most racing commissions are represented in court by staffs of state attorneys general, and transgressors frequently are represented by skilled and powerful attorneys who outgun the defenses of young lawyers working for the state.

Not all racing commission chairmen are professors of law, of course, and not all are as gutsy as Stanley Sadinsky. At the stewards' level there can be an understandable intimidation factor, knowing that major penalties will be challenged in what frequently turn out to be unequal legal contests.

The Sadinsky prosecutions in Ontario do not solve that problem, but the power to levy very significant fines substantially raises the risk versus punishment factor for those charged with serious racing crimes.

The Ontario case rested on the issue of conduct damaging and detrimental to racing. The principal defendant had previously been barred from racing in both Ontario and New Jersey, two of the most important Standardbred racing jurisdictions in North America, but he continued to race horses using a shadow trainer. That flagrant disregard for the rules of racing by him and his fellow defendants provided the Ontario commission with a compelling case.

Hopefully the Ontario developments will embolden other racing commissions, in Canada and the United States, to seek the ability to levy meaningful penalties to fit the seriousness of specific offenses. In most cases this will require legislative action, and racing can only hope that commissions will seek those powers, and legislators will have the will and wisdom and courage to grant them.