06/18/2002 12:00AM

Trouble on the Internet betting front

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Tucson, Ariz. - Joy and despair are not usually stablemates, but they are racing as an entry this week.

The bad news is disastrously bad. Racing has been holding its breath for months about a tenuous provision in the anti-Internet gambling bill in Congress exempting horse racing. The exemption was blown away at the last minute in the House Judiciary committee Tuesday morning. The sport now faces a rugged uphill battle opposing the bill - H.R. 3215, better known as the Goodlatte bill - as it moves to the House floor, and beyond.

If the bill passes Congress and is signed into law, horse racing not only will be excluded from the Internet, one of the fastest growing communication avenues in history, but also telephone account wagering as we know it, currently legal in 13 states, would become illegal. Bootleg betting would proliferate on the Internet everywhere.

All of racing's big guns representing all breeds - Thoroughbred, harness, and Quarter Horse - were unable to keep this ship from sinking on the Potomac. It is one more indication that horse racing is not high on anyone's agenda except for those of us in it. For months there was the gnawing concern that the horse racing exemption would not hold up, given the anti-gambling sentiments in the present Congress, and the Judiciary committee vote to strip the exemption and pass the bill without it, 15 to 12, was disappointing, but not surprising.

It is highly doubtful that racing can put Humpty Dumpty together again on this issue. The best hope now is for all of racing to work toward getting the Goodlatte bill defeated. Given the tenor of the times and Congress's contrived or actual ignorance of racing's workings, defeating the bill could be a difficult assignment. Hopefully, there are enough members who recall Prohibition and realize that Goodlatte's bill will be as costly and futile in limiting technology as Volstead's Prohibition Act was in preventing drinking three-quarters of a century ago.

Despite the pall cast over the sport in Congress, there is very good news on the racing front to partially offset this impending disaster.

The glad tidings are that before the month of July is out, horse racing in America is likely to have a test for erythropoietin, or EPO, a scourge of the sport in recent years.

When the test is introduced, there may be some startling revelations.

The test will be a boon for defense attorneys, who will be rushed into the trenches by the artful dodgers of the sport. It will be a terrible development for trainers who have used the stuff. And, it will be hugely interesting to see the reaction of owners who patronize trainers who turn up with EPO positives.

One question that has lingered is why owners knowingly support trainers who have been suspect in the past. No test needs to be devised for that one. It is simply that money can be made, dishonestly, and in this age of business without ethics, racing has not been immune.

The significance of the new test development, reported in these pages a few weeks ago but not yet officially announced, is that racing now will have a weapon against a substance for which there has been no test previously. Some "wonder" trainers may come up short, and some reputations may be revised or tarnished. But if the test works and withstands the legal challenges it is certain to get, it will move racing forward exponentially.