04/09/2002 12:00AM

We must all learn to get along

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Racing commissioners in America are split into two camps, and one of them, the Association of Racing Commissioners International, meets this weekend in New York for an annual conference.

The ARCI represents many, but not all, of the more populous and affluent racing jurisdictions - New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ontario, half of Pennsylvania, and California. For the record, New York does not belong to either the ARCI or its rival, the North American Pari-Mutuel Regulators Association.

Bennett Leibman, one of the wisest and most knowledgeable of all racing commissioners, won't be attending ARCI's meeting, having been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency by the rulers of the Empire State, George Pataki and Joe Bruno. Liebman now graces the faculty of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.

Liebman was the complete package as a racing commissioner - lawyer, writer, humorist, and perhaps most important of all, a confirmed hard-core horseplayer and railbird in an earlier life; a man who knows the game inside out. I asked him to speak at a racing congress recently, discussing his former occupation, and what he had to say should have been heard by all racing commissioners, not just a small nucleus of deeply involved commissioners who were part of the big crowd on hand. Those who missed it still can read Liebman's speech in its entirety at www.harnesstracks.com.

This is how he began.

"I should give a nuanced, intellectual, well-researched, politically correct discourse on the differing perspectives, agendas, and missions of racetracks and racing commissions. I can't give you that speech. All I can do is give you my gut feelings on how racetracks and racing commissions really interact, and the short answer is they don't."

Liebman said many racetrack operators believe that racing commissioners are two-thirds of the old Perry Mason objection: not necessarily incompetent, but irrelevant and immaterial. "To racetracks," he said, "commissions are the proverbial bodies at an Irish wake. You need to have them to conduct racing, but they better not do anything." And he added that tracks look at commissions the same way that Enron looked at regulation. They just wished the regulators would go away. Some track operators, he said, not only wish the commissions would go away, but act as if they had gone away.

Liebman suggested alternatives for this kind of behavior by tracks. He thinks they should start sending representatives to commission meetings, noting it is a lot easier psychologically for a commission to beat up someone it doesn't know than someone it sees on a regular basis. He feels tracks should provide the understaffed commissions with all the information they can, and assign someone knowledgeable to be regular liaison with the commission, someone who knows what commissions can and cannot do.

Liebman also says tracks should stop scapegoating commissions. "Nobody stopped going to a racetrack because he or she didn't like the racing commission," he said.

Liebman's final point was somewhat surprising. He said tracks should keep politics to a minimum. While commissioners may be creatures of politics, he said, almost none of the issues faced by the commissions have political implications, and hardly ever, he discovered as a longtime commissioner, does a governor's office care about how a racing commission rules and votes. "If you want to play politics," Liebman advised the track operators he was addressing, "play it with the legislature, not with the racing commission."

Liebman acknowledged that racing commissions are not perfect. "The Hall of Fame," he said, "isn't recruiting any racing commissioners." And, he said, "some commissions are the state's answer to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone. They are the agencies time forgot, and the decades cannot improve."

But he warned the track operators that they can't change racing commissions, and the commissions are not going to fade away. He said the tracks had better change their public attitude toward the commissions and let them know they are recognized and important. It is a sign of respect, he said, and furthermore it is in the tracks' best interest.

All those points are true, of course, of racing commissioners themselves, and both tracks and commissions might heed those words of wisdom from a man who knows both sides of the issue firsthand.