04/20/2010 12:00AM

Taking on the touchy stuff


TUCSON, Ariz. - All men are created equal, it says here, but not when it comes to public speaking.

Two who aren't are Bennett Liebman, executive director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, and Jeff Gural, the New York real estate magnate who built and operates Tioga Downs in southern New York between Elmira and Binghamton, and is rebuilding Vernon Downs between Utica and Syracuse.

Knowing their ideas and unique and entertaining ways of expressing them, I asked them to address the recent joint meeting of Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America. Gural was asked to talk about "Things racing should be talking about but isn't," and Liebman addressed the topic "Things racing doesn't want to talk about."

As expected, the sparks flew. Both racing men gave racing hell.

Gural started by noting that "the people that you really would want to be speaking to - the leaders of the horsemen's associations and the breeders who have put their own interests first above that of the sport of racing - aren't here." He could have added racing commissioners, including those in California, where the meeting was held. They all were invited, and none showed up.

Gural said the tracks that don't have slots weren't represented because "they can't afford to send anyone, and the tracks that do have slots aren't here because they don't really care about racing."

He said tracks everywhere are overbuilt, creating the desolation of emptiness, and noted that he had built Tioga Downs small to avoid that, and to get people to come to a racetrack and enjoy the experience. He named tracks that had spent $200 million to build permanent racinos, and said they could have saved the money because people would come just as often to bet slots at the temporary facilities they abandoned. He said racing needed to "make it fun," and he said racing that caters to the breeding industry - and he is a breeder - makes no sense. He said racing has drunk the Kool-Aid the breeders have sold - racing 2-year-olds - rather than getting good horses to stay on the track. And he used that to springboard to his favorite project - forcing top horses to race at 4 and 5 in order to make their get eligible to race. He blamed breeders for blocking the idea, and he blamed horsemen for opposing lowering takeout, which he has done this year at Tioga, but not at Vernon, because horsemen at Tioga agreed and those at Vernon did not.

Then Bennett Liebman took over on things racing doesn't want to talk about.

Liebman is a racing historian as well as a former player and racing commissioner and present teacher of racing law. He delivered a recounting of just about every major scandal in modern racing - Thoroughbred and harness - and noted that racing knows little about what really happened in any of them, saying, "There's no closure in racing. We simply move on."

His list of those involved in strange doings at one time or another included big names - Tony Ciulla, Oscar Barrera, Dr. Alex Harthill, Marje Everett, Lou Wolfson, R.D. Hubbard, Richard Dutrow - and he noted all were forgiven or took their secrets with them to their graves. He asked what happened, and then said, "Don't bother asking, we're still waiting to find out."

He cited the predicament of steward Clinton Pitts at the 1995 Breeders' Cup at Belmont, when trainer Bobby Frankel went to Pitts just before post time and told him Cigar was running in turndowns, illegal in New York. What's Pitts going to do? It is five minutes to post. Is he going to scratch America's horse? He lets Cigar run.

Liebman told of the trial of 13 harness drivers in 1974 in New York, where "the prosecutors were all young, under 30, and looked like the cast of Hair, and the defense attorneys were all older, and looked like they were out of central casting for Guys and Dolls." He said the whole sport was on trial, and it won, with all found innocent and everyone going back to work, just like nothing happened. But he asked, "What actually did happen? There were extraordinarily strange betting patterns, with bets placed weirdly on superfectas throughout the day at odd OTB locations. The circumstantial evidence was as bad as it could get. But nobody talked then, nobody's talking now."

Liebman talked of his racing commissioner days, when "there was absolutely nothing worse than going to Aqueduct or Belmont and hearing the fans yell 'juice, juice, juice' as the winning horse reached the finish line. Where did the juice come from? We still don't know."

He concluded asking why some of America's biggest bettors and best-known handicappers were betting out of little Hinsdale in New Hampshire, and says we still don't know.

"Look at who we are," Liebman said. "Too often, we're pawns who live in a Twilight Zone of racing, where, like the iconic Sergeant Schultz, we know nothing. We are racing, where most every mystery is an unsolved mystery."