12/28/2004 12:00AM

Thoroughbred racing at dawn of 2005


TUCSON, Ariz. - As a new year dawns, here is where things stand in Thoroughbred racing in North America.

In the West, we have a new edition of Wayne's World, the cast headed this time around by the wily Wayne Gertmenian. The entrenched leader of the Jockeys' Guild, Gertmenian, eying the grossly overpaid athletes of professional baseball, basketball, and football, hopes to add jockeys to their ranks. How? By having the industry pay not only for their accident insurance but also for their images on television and simulcasting screens.

Gertmenian wants tracks to pay jockeys appearance money, a proposal that will lead to fraternal bloodshed in the coming year. Tom Meeker was on target when he told the Racing Symposium in Tucson in mid-December that the jockeys "are preparing to go to war." Gertmenian has fired the first salvo, and the battle is joined.

In the East, we have the quaintly named Friends of New York Racing, all non-New Yorkers, all powerful racing interests, and all driven, we are asked to believe, by a burst of altruism that has led them to drop a million dollars or so into Tim Smith's new pot to help improve New York racing. A bright schoolboy with an inquiring mind might ask, "Why would they do that?" And the kid next to him, whose dad might be a horseplayer, would tell him, "Because NYRA's franchise is up for grabs in two years, dummy."

In the Midwest, we have the toothless tiger, the much-ballyhooed "reform" of auction sales. Cot Campbell was credited with doing the impossible by herding these cats, and he did, but he didn't declaw them, and he certainly hasn't tamed them. They still can scratch and bite without fear of retribution, since the 21 members of Campbell's Sales Integrity Task Force took the reforms only "as far as they deemed necessary." They were not inclined nor empowered to provide penalties for misdeeds, or for enforcement of the new code.

As Satish Sanan, the prime mover of auction reform, observed, "The proof of the pudding will be the implementation."

Men as successful as Sanan, who sought true transparency - complete disclosure by sellers, agents, and vets - are pragmatists, understanding and accepting reality, and he knows better than anyone that the new "code," while a major step forward, falls far short of true reform. Connivers do not trade on good faith, and the auction world is their picnic ground.

In the North, one of the far-seeing thinkers of North American racing, David Willmot, president and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, has taken perhaps the most significant action of all in racing in 2004, and will unveil it sometime in 2005. It is wireless technology.

Three years ago, at a racing congress in Las Vegas, my son, who toils as Enterprise Strategy Manager at Microsoft, told leaders of racing that the next five years were critical, and that if they did not catch up and keep up with technology they would suffer serious harm from the innovative hands of competition. He said racing needed to make certain that players could use existing and fast-developing technology by betting - and viewing the races on which they bet - from their cars, their offices, their bathrooms, and their bedrooms.

This idea has far-reaching consequences, of course, for a sport and industry that still tries to count filled seats at a racetrack as the measuring stick of success, despite the fact that only 15 percent or so of money wagered takes place from people in those seats.

Willmot and his Woodbine technicians understand the wireless evolution taking place, and are positioning themselves to meet the challenge. I have seen their pioneering effort, still in progress but nearing completion, and it is impressive and proactive.

Those who get to use it will like it, hopefully in the new year soon getting under way.