07/04/2003 12:00AM

Three in race for booby prize


NEW YORK - This past week was shortened by the Independence Day holiday, but it turns out there was still plenty of time for some elected officials and public figures to commit several acts of extraordinary stupidity and venality in the world of horse racing.

It's truly difficult to pick a winner among them, but let's give second runner-up honors to New York's offtrack betting corporations and the State Racing and Wagering Board, for circumventing the intention and spirit of a new law meant to allow tracks to experiment with takeout rates.

It's a simple and overdue concept observed almost everywhere else in the world of commerce: permitting a business to set its own prices. Under the law, tracks may change takeout rates once every quarter, subject to routine review and approval by the board. The clear intention of the law is that if the tracks submit their application on time and stay within the range of rates in the legislation, the board is supposed to approve the changes.

So the New York Racing Association submitted a mild plan to lower the takeout on straight bets from 14 to 13 percent and on two-horse bets from 17.5 to 17 percent. The OTB's, which have no statutory authority to participate in the discussion, opposed the reduction. No surprise there: The OTB's believe that the mission of their public-benefit corporations is to extract as much money as possible from the public while returning as little as possible to the racing industry, resulting in landmark decisions like taking Yavapai Downs's simulcasts over Del Mar's and pulling the plug on Keeneland.

Instead of following its mandate to approve NYRA's reduction request, the board failed to act on the application, meaning there can be no changes until at least Oct. 1.

The first runner-up prize goes to the Maryland legislators and tax officials who quietly enacted a new state withholding tax on gambling winnings with no public discussion or consultation with the tracks. As reported by Andrew Beyer earlier this week, tax officials showed up at a Maryland Racing Commission meeting last month and announced that starting July 1, the state would start taking 7 percent (4.75 percent for nonresidents) in local withholding on top of the already punitive and unfair 28 percent federal bite.

Most states have gone the other way, eliminating state withholding because all it does is drive away players, something Maryland racing can hardly afford to do, given its dwindling customer base. Had state officials consulted with anyone possessing a scrap of knowledge about this issue, they would have been told that any horseplayer with half a brain will now refrain from making exotic bets at Maryland tracks and instead bet through out-of-state providers who do not levy the tax - and who return far less of the betting dollar to Maryland than an ontrack bet would. Net result: Less money for both the public and the state of Mary-land. Well done!

The grand prize may even please its recipient, a man who likes to finish first at everything. Last Tuesday, real estate tycoon Donald J. Trump purchased a full-page advertisement in The New York Times that is less immediately injurious to horseplayers than the acts described above, but deserves a truly special place in the annals of deception and hypocrisy.

The advertisement starts with a grainy half-page photograph of Al Capone (with the helpful caption "Notorious gangster Al Capone") and the headlines "So you want to put slot machines at the Racetracks? He would have loved it" and "What more could a gangster ask for?" The text begins, "Right now, there's a proposal pending in Albany to allow slot machines to be installed at the trifecta of New York's racetracks: Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. This is truly astonishing . . . " The ad goes on to repeat some of the findings of Attorney General's Eliot Spitzer's hysterical investigation of NYRA before concluding that "It's a bad idea. It's not in the public's best interest."

Forget that Trump has his facts all wrong - it's a law, not a pending proposal, and there will be no slots at Belmont or Saratoga. The only thing "truly astonishing" is Trump's apparent belief that anyone could read his advertisement without seeing his blatant self-interest on two counts.

Trump, of course, built and owns three Atlantic City casinos, which are expected to lose business when slots come to Aqueduct next spring. Even more remarkably, Trump's civic-minded outrage at NYRA's operating a slots facility did not prevent him from recently bidding on the job to build the new facility. He ran second to MGM Mirage. So now it's a bad idea and not in the public's interest.

If NYRA had a sense of humor left these days, it would buy its own full-page ad about Trump with the money it tried to give back to the public. Instead of using Capone's picture, there's a late, great public figure who not only matched Trump's dignity and public-policy expertise but also sported similarly fake orange hair: notorious entertainer Bozo the Clown.