10/06/2004 11:00PM

Whole lot of losing going on


NEW YORK - Can't we all just get along? Apparently not, as illustrated anew on three different fronts in the world of racing.

Trackgoers outside New York from Boston to Baltimore are not being allowed to bet on Belmont Park these days because of a dispute between the New York Racing Association and an affiliation of other Eastern tracks that falls somewhere between idiotic and incomprehensible. The tracks shut off the signal because NYRA recently signed an agreement with the Television Games Network giving TVG the exclusive right to in-home account wagering and in-home signal rebroadcasting in those states.

Very little in the way of current rights or revenues are actually affected by this agreement. The NYRA-TVG deal would restrict current or imminent telephone betting in New Hampshire and Virginia, and block the NYRA signal from being piped into Pennsylvania homes on a longstanding cable-TV presentation. The dollars involved are minuscule, less on an annual basis than has already been lost by the complete shutoff of betting.

Yet there is no resolution in sight. Both sides claim this is a matter of principle on which they will not cave. Meanwhile, everyone's business is down and the customers are getting shut out of some of the year's best and most important racing. It's almost dazzling in its consistency: Every single party loses money, the public is poorly served, and the whole mess can only lead to a permanent loss of business for everyone from rightfully disgusted customers.

Then there was the news that NYRA has broken ranks with Churchill Downs and Pimlico to negotiate its own five-year deal for television rights to the Belmont Stakes rather than continue to be part of a unified Triple Crown television package. At least no one is citing principle here: It's just about the money and the inability of the three biggest track conglomerates to cut up their one big piece of pie in a way that makes them all happy.

Historically, Churchill got 50 percent of the Triple Crown revenues for the Derby while Magna (Pimlico) and NYRA got 25 percent each for the Preakness and Belmont. With six Triple Crown bids in the last eight years, though, the Belmont has been posting huge ratings and recently outdrawing the Derby, so NYRA thought it deserved a bigger portion. According to two people involved in the negotiations, NYRA wanted to widen its slice from 25 to 35 percent, and Churchill and Magna would not budge. What seems like a simple math problem proved insoluble.

So NYRA went and signed its own five-year deal with ABC and ESPN, while NBC will try to keep the Derby and Preakness. NYRA officials say they acknowledge that it would be better for the Triple Crown and the sport to keep the races on one network, but that the financial differences were too great.

"It it was a matter of fifty or a hundred thousand a year, we could have a discussion about what's best for the game," said one official who requested anonymity. "But the difference between the ABC offer and the best we were going to do as part of a Triple Crown package was $600,000 a year." End of discussion.

NYRA is operating under unusual circumstances these days, closely monitored by court-appointed attorneys, prosecutors, and politicians as it approaches the end of its current franchise. That in part explains a new emphasis on increasing revenues, and it may also explain why NYRA and Magna seem to be clashing increasingly these days. A lot of this may be the prelude to the coming war between Magna and NYRA for the future ownership and operation of New York racing.

Not that success in any endeavor is guaranteed when racing conglomerates join forces. Just look at California, where Magna and Churchill found themselves on the same side of a wasteful political effort that ended Wednesday with the hoisting of a white flag. The California tracks were a significant part of a $27 million lobbying effort to press for passage of Proposition 68, which would have brought slots to five racetracks and 11 card clubs if the state was unable to cut new deals with 55 different Native American tribes that can operate casinos.

Any chance of passage ended months and millions of lobbying dollars ago, but only Wednesday did the tracks pull the plug on their support, with opinion polls showing only 30 percent of voters likely to support the measure. In addition to the dollars spent, racing got drubbed by nearly every editorial board in the state for being anti-Indian carpetbaggers.

So New York racing is unavailable in neighboring states, the Triple Crown has been disassembled for television, and California tracks wasted millions on a doomed effort that lowered their political standing. Just another productive week in the world of American racing.