11/22/2002 1:00AM

Why hire chameleon Rudy?


NEW YORK - "Politics make strange bedfellows," a sentiment usually attributed to William Shakespeare, was in fact first written by Charles Dudley Warner, a Connecticut newspaperman and a collaborator of Mark Twain's. What Shakespeare actually wrote in "The Tempest" was that "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

Either version works nicely, however, to describe the scene at a ballroom in Manhattan's Marriott Marquis hotel this past Thursday when Rudy Giuliani was introduced as the savior of Thoroughbred racing. Giuliani Partners LLC has been hired at a cost of at least $2 million to coordinate the review of wagering security prompted by the Breeders' Cup Pick Six scandal.

It is hard to imagine a more unlikely person for the industry to have gotten into bed with, given Giuliani's relationship with racing in New York during his two terms as mayor. It was no surprise that Terry Meyocks, president of the New York Racing Association, abstained from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association board's vote to hire Giuliani Partners and that Barry Schwartz, the NYRA chairman, declined to comment publicly about the hiring. Good for them.

Giuliani has been characterized in recent days as a longtime fan and friend of the sport, but this is wishful thinking. His stewardship of New York City OTB, which began with the disastrous appointment of Allie Sherman to head the agency, wavered between disinterest and contempt. He campaigned on the false premise that OTB had to be sold because it was losing money, when in fact it was providing a healthy direct stream of revenue to the city and state.

He did nothing to effect a sale for seven years and was thoroughly unresponsive to attempts by NYRA to combine on- and off-track operations. Then on his way out the door in 2001, Giuliani tried to throw the OTB franchise to Magna Entertainment without any public hearings or thoughtful consideration of what might be best for the sport and industry.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Giuliani was an increasingly unpopular lame-duck mayor who seemed almost determined to leave a legacy of small-minded, retaliatory behavior. A typical incident came when NYRA legally cut off its signal to city OTB parlors in a contractual dispute, and Giuliani responded by dispatching fire and health inspectors to Aqueduct to look for obscure code violations.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Giuliani became a national demigod, Time magazine's Man of the Year, and the early favorite for the 2008 presidency. He stepped into a void of local and national leadership at a time when people needed reassurance and rose to the occasion with a sincere and skillful blend of statesmanship and common sense. If Rudy said things were going to be all right, they were going to be all right.

Since leaving office 10 months ago, though not until after letting supporters exhaust a bizarre plan to allow him to stay in office for a third term, he has written the obligatory best-seller and entertained offers to run everything from Major League Baseball to the Securities and Exchange Commission. What he finally settled on was a business enterprise that reportedly will generate $50 million to $100 million in fees over the next year.

The former mayor and his former inner circle - agency commissioners, attorneys, and financial analysts - are being paid handsomely to "consult" for troubled companies and industries. Initial clients include Merrill Lynch, which is being investigated for misleading investors; Worldcom, the bankrupt telecommunications giant; and now Thoroughbred racing. Giuliani, a former prosecutor, these days seems more like an expensive character witness for defendants having a rough time in the court of public opinion.

It's not clear what anyone will be getting for his money other than the current credibility of the Giuliani name, which may be exactly and entirely what the clients are seeking. Given the firm's prices and its lack of expertise in either technology or racing, this obviously was not the most efficient way to coordinate the project. More likely, Giuliani's popularity, rather than a specific service, is being purchased to legitimize the investigation, and his political clout and connections may keep any over-reactive federal interference at bay.

Perhaps Giuliani's law-enforcement background will prove helpful and relevant if more suspicious tickets are uncovered, and he could turn out to be a valuable asset if this story takes further ugly turns. In the meantime, here's hoping his personal and political resurrection includes more respect for racing than he demonstrated as the mayor of New York.