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Out of the Gate, Officials Lack Unity

As racing faces one of its darkest hours, brought on by the biggest national public-relations problem since the wave of race-fixing on the East Coast in the 1970s, the industry is where it frequently is: badly, sadly polarized.

Doing some pricey cosmetic work last week, the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. hired an untested company fronted by former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to help with Operation Bootstrap.

Estimates of what Giuliani’s consulting firm is being paid range between $1 million and $2 million, and while 99% of the NTRA’s membership voted in favor of this expenditure, the glaring exception was the New York Racing Assn., which operates the three major racetracks in that state.

NYRA’s objection to Giuliani couldn’t be more personal: During his final term, Giuliani green-lighted the sale of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. to Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment, rejecting a bid that was made by NYRA in concert with Churchill Downs Inc. Giuliani said that his decision “was a slam dunk,” but the New York state legislature failed to approve Stronach’s offer, which fell off the table the day Giuliani left office.

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NYRA’s pooh-poohing of Giuliani came about two weeks after racing’s Big Three -- NYRA, Magna and Churchill Downs -- jointly announced that they would work together to shore up security at beleaguered Autotote and the two other totes that service the industry. With Giuliani’s outfit now one of the watchdogs after the pick-six fiasco at the Breeders’ Cup, how dedicated can NYRA be in honoring the spirit of that agreement?

Because of the way racing is structured -- individual tracks are beholden to their state racing commissions, and Tim Smith’s title of national commissioner is a papier-mache designation -- Churchill Downs has been unable to implement a company-wide measure that was to instill confidence in those edgy bettors who suspect that some horses are being bet after the races start.

Churchill successfully pushed through an early betting cutoff for its tracks in Kentucky, Indiana and Florida, but in California the racing board turned down the same request by Hollywood Park, which is a Churchill track. The majority of California’s commissioners said that bettors would be inconvenienced; besides, there hasn’t been one documented example of what bookmakers of yore called past-posting.

The California board’s problems are trivial compared to what’s before the racing board in Illinois, where the Breeders’ Cup was run on Oct. 26. Although the winning pick-six bets, on races at Arlington Park, were made in Maryland, via a New York telephone account that was processed in Delaware, none of those agencies has jurisdiction over the possible redistribution of the $3 million in winnings. Seventy-eight tickets with five out of six winners were worth $4,606 on race day, but each of those payoffs will grow, with interest, to $40,000 more if the perfect pick-six tickets are thrown out.

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The Illinois Racing Board may address this issue at its Dec. 9 meeting. Right now the money is sitting in an escrow account in a Chicago bank. One of the concerns in Illinois is whether a premature redistribution might prejudice the U.S. government’s case against the three men linked to the winning pick-six bet. So far, only one of them has entered a guilty plea.

Back in California, it seems that the racing board, at a time when the game should be circling the wagons, could have cut Hollywood Park some slack last week.

The track’s request to preempt betting was in the form of a trial, for only the last 20 days of the current meet. Other tracks would hold on to the status quo if they wanted to.

Surprisingly, before the vote was taken, almost everyone in the room lined up against Hollywood. Magna’s Jack Liebau, who speaks for Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in California, was not enamored with the idea, even though he had recently visited the Meadowlands on a night when a horse left the gate at 10-1 and was almost 16-1 by the time he won the race.

Some thought that Hollywood should have tried to split the difference, as Aqueduct will soon do, by closing the windows early on its off-track customers while giving the on-track crowd the chance to bet until the gate opens. But Rick Baedeker, the Hollywood Park president, is troubled by that dichotomy.

“That gives the guy on-track an unfair advantage,” Baedeker said. “The whole idea of [simulcast betting] is that there’s a level playing field and everybody has the same chance.”

Autotote, to say the least, has some retrenching to do. This is the company that took over Santa Anita’s business 10 years ago, after AmTote, the longtime holder of the contract, had submitted a lower bid.

On opening day in 1992, Autotote suffered numerous mechanical breakdowns, thousands of disgusted bettors went home early and by conservative estimates about $3 million in handle was lost.

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“I’d say that it’s not possible that bets could come in after a race starts,” Brooks Pierce, president of Autotote, said last week, “but after what’s happened lately, I guess anything is possible.”

It may no longer be very easy for an Autotote employee to come in on his day off, just to tidy up. Chris Harn, fired by the Newark, Del., company shortly after the Breeders’ Cup, wasn’t scheduled to work the day he rejiggered the six winning tickets after four of the pick-six races had been run. Password security is expected to improve too.

Besides Harn, there were 17 Autotote employees who theoretically could have tapped into the betting network to do what he did.

Just to keep a hand in, Harn and his two friends from college were counterfeiting tickets for almost a year while they waited for the big score.

Just down the road from Autotote, at Delaware Park, another of the tote company’s employees was fired in 1999 for attempting much the same thing.

The scheme three years ago involved hundreds instead of millions of dollars, but a thief has to start somewhere. The Delaware Racing Commission didn’t learn of the incident until recently.

That’s racing for you. In that wonderful film, “Sweet Smell of Success,” Burt Lancaster delivered the line, “My right hand hasn’t met my left hand in years.”

The Lancaster character was just being glib. In racing, too much of the time, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

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