03/27/2008 11:00PM

Years after Fix Six, little has changed

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NEW YORK - More than five years after clumsy criminals nearly hijacked $3 million from the pick-six pool at the 2002 Breeders' Cup, are the American parimutuel pools that total $15 billion a year in Thoroughbred wagers safe and secure?

It's tough to find an industry official who can say anything more reassuring than that there is greater awareness of potential problems. In fact, the people whose job it is to protect the betting public, the state regulators and racing commissioners, are the most adamant in saying that racing still needs to do much more.

Last Tuesday at the opening of their annual convention, officials of Racing Commissioners International renewed their call for independent monitoring of parimutuel wagering, the only form of legal betting that does not employ outside monitors. State lotteries and casinos are required to have professional, outside integrity monitors, a function more likely to be performed at tracks, if at all, by retired policemen, political appointees, and maybe a curious employee in the accounting or simulcasting department.

More than a year ago, the commissioners formed a not-for-profit subsidiary, RCI Integrity Services, to fill this need, but as yet their only client is the online service Youbet.com. The frustrated commissioners are starting to talk about legislating a state-by-state requirement for independent monitoring.

"The National Thoroughbred Racing Association reported to me that late odds drops during the race is the No. 1 issue eroding fan confidence - that's more than medication and drug issues," Paul Bowlinger, an RCI vice president, said at the convention. "That comes as no surprise to me because the fan sees these odds drops every day. Shouldn't this be a warning shot to the industry? We spend $30 million to typically find a few Bute overages and we spend virtually nothing overlooking the pools. I'm not saying that drug testing is not important, but for the first time we have proof that wagering integrity is at the forefront for the typical fan."

It's worth recounting how the industry both discovered and reacted to the 2002 Fix Six incident. No automated system or protocol uncovered the crude attempt to punch out winning tickets after four the the pick-six races had already been run, and if the perpetrators had been slightly less ham-handed - putting in a conventional $2 rather than $8 ticket, buying some losers to make their play appear credible, and constructing a ticket more subtle than four singles and two alls - they might never have been found out. Nor did anyone working for industry-funded outfits such as the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau smell a rat: It was alert horseplayers and a couple of betting-savvy employees of the New York Racing Association who immediately sounded alarms.

Meanwhile, officials of the offtrack betting corporation that sold the bogus tickets insisted for days that it was a legitimate transaction from a valued customer. A California track executive said that he would begin posting armed guards at his tote room. The NTRA passed the hat to raise $2 million to hire Giuliani Partners to issue a report that is gathering dust somewhere. These responses do not amount to a compelling case that racing can police itself in this area.

That money would have been far better spent implementing independent monitors, who by now would surely have suggested or demanded reforms that might have prevented the system's ongoing vulnerability. It has become clear that past-posting is not always a paranoid delusion by losing horseplayers, but a real problem: A New York official at the convention reported eight incidents in New York in the last two years alone where betting was still available while a race was being run.

These cases are not necessarily sinister, and often involve nothing more than a forgetful racing official failing to push a button on time, but it's appalling that a $15 billion industry stakes its integrity on someone remembering to push a button. Several convention speakers said their investigations are made more difficult by the fact that while races are timed in hundredths of a second, the time that the starting gate actually opens is widely reported only to the nearest minute.

And as Mike Maloney, the crusading horseplayer who has been independently lobbying regulators for reform, pointed out, "past-posting is merely the flavor of the month" and should not obscure the need for other monitoring benefits. The industry does a shockingly poor job of investigating suspicious payoffs and odds drops that turn customers more wary and cynical by the day. Even if almost every perceived irregularity is in fact benign, customers need to know that someone is paying attention - preferably someone independent rather than someone with a vested interest in saying that all is well whether it is or not.