01/26/2007 12:00AM

Trying to map racing's global future


NEW YORK - While most of the domestic racing industry was schmoozing with Hollywood celebrities in Beverly Hills this week at the Eclipse Awards, the rest of the Thoroughbred world was in Dubai addressing issues that will affect the game in every corner of the globe for decades to come.

The Asian Racing Conference may have the ring of a faraway business meeting for administrators of the sport in places like Macao, Singapore, and India, but it emerged this year, in its 31st incarnation, as the world's single most important gathering of racing's movers and shakers.

With a record 774 delegates from every section of the industry and all four corners of the globe, this year's five-day conference may someday be looked back upon as an event that marked a turning point in racing history. With 59 of the world's 100 richest races run on Asian soil, and with purses in Japan, Hong Kong, and Dubai outstripping those in Europe and North America, the sport's historical migration continues to move inexorably eastward. That Asia should be the setting for a worldwide debate on the topics of greatest concern to racing's every single constituency should not be lost on anyone involved in this game.

Operating under the banner "Racing Without Borders," the conference produced urgent and repeated calls for greater uniformity of rules, especially where medication, stewarding, and quarantine regulations are concerned. All three subjects become issues of increasing concern as more horses travel more frequently around the world in search of success both on the racecourse and in the breeding barn.

Of greatest concern to the delegates seemed to be the issue of drugs, especially race-day medication. On that subject, Adrian Beaumont of England's International Racing Bureau produced the quote of the year, or of any other year, when he said, "When we talk about medication, we're really talking about America."

Take it as a damning indictment of this country's liberal drug regulations, rules that allow horses in every single jurisdiction to run with medication whether they need it or not, rules that enable horses to run above their natural ability while masking infirmities which, having won Grade 1 races under the influence of Lasix and Butazolidin, they then pass on to their offspring. Or take it as a wake-up call to the only one of the world's premier racing nations to allow race-day medication: American drug policies are a monkey wrench in the works of racing in its present and future incarnations.

Of equal concern to the delegates were the difficulties in attracting new people to the game. Call them fans or bettors, the number of people who pay attention to racing are dwindling when compared to other leisure activities like professional sports, casino gambling, lotteries, and poker.

Tristram Ricketts, chief executive of Britain's Levy Board, the outfit assigned the unenviable task of squeezing money for racing out of Britain's tightfisted bookmakers, called for two-pronged marketing efforts designed to attract new blood to the world's racetracks while continuing to provide veteran punters with stimulating offtrack wagering menus.

But Ricketts left no doubt about where the future of racing lies, i.e., on the racetrack. "It is essential for the long-term future of our great sport and industry," he declared, "that we retain and nurture racing's role as a live spectator sport."

His statement may have a vaguely quaint and old-fashioned sound to some American ears. For too long in certain quarters of the American industry, especially those where racing is viewed primarily as a venue for gambling, attendance at racetracks has become a matter of increasing indifference.

That is a point of view that could not be more blatantly misinformed. Gamblers will gravitate to racing for the very same reasons they may or may not lean toward sports betting, poker playing, casino gambling, or lotteries. They will weigh the odds against the takeout and act accordingly. Increasingly, they seem to be moving away from horse racing. Even within the context of racing, they have long since abandoned the racetrack in favor of offtrack betting parlors, phone wagering, and Internet wagering.

But does someone who plays the horses at a New York City OTB shop, or who picks up his office phone to place a bet through his racetrack account, ever become anything more than a gambler concerned with speed figures, exacta prices, and other assorted wagering minutiae?

Conversely, it is the person who pays his way onto the racetrack who experiences racing in all of its richly varied and colorful aspects, betting included. The racetrack is the incubator of future owners, trainers, jockeys, racetrack administrators, and racing journalists. As track attendance dwindles, so, too, does the pool from which all of these professions are filled. And as that pool shrinks, the quality of the people who fill those professions declines.

On that score, getting the American public back to the track should be the first priority of every racing professional in the land.