Derby weekend in Louisville is the zenith of a James Casey year, his only vacation, really. It's a chore to arrange. His J.M. Casey Racing Stable trains thoroughbreds at Laurel Park, and he must make sure things get done while he's away. The hassles are but a small price, though. It's the Kentucky Derby.

So when Casey flew out this spring and got arrested on a charge of ticket scalping, spent time in a jail cell where he says he was fondled, and missed the 125th running of America's most notable horse race, he hired attorneys and the war was on.

A welter of subpoenas later, he learned that two of three Derby tickets he bought from a scalper, one of which he is accused of trying to scalp himself, had begun their journey to the street in the office of . . .

Kentucky's governor, Democrat Paul Patton.

Now the entire commonwealth knows that Patton's office had acted as a sort of government Ticketron, obtaining 553 reserved-seat Derby ducats from Churchill Downs and apparently dishing out "the vast majority" to political supporters and state officials, according to a published report. And that the government-run distribution system has existed for years, administration after administration.

So today, Kentucky's Executive Branch Ethics Commission will take a look, maybe even vote to open a formal inquiry. Although those who received tickets by the grace of the state paid face value for them, that might not satisfy ethics laws, given how hard choice Derby seats are to get.

"The concern is someone could have used their official position to create a privilege or an advantage for himself or someone else, and that is a violation," said the ethics commission's executive director, Jill LeMaster.

And the whole flap can be traced back to Casey, 42, a veterinarian and trainer who works out of a Spartan office just a few pungent feet from the stalls holding the 18 horses that his company exercises, feeds and grooms at Laurel Park. He hadn't intended to embroil Patton, but when he found out he had, "I kinda got a laugh out of that."

Perks for officials are as old as government, of course, but in recent years, ethics laws have closed many loopholes and forced more disclosure to bolster the public's confidence that politicians are not being bought, or at least to make it easier to find out who is trying to buy them. A Maryland law that just took effect, for example, makes it illegal for elected officials to accept free tickets to sporting events from special interests.

Still, officials everywhere manage to wind up ringside, on the inside rail or peering down from skyboxes, usually in the name of fostering contacts and promoting development. There are two state skyboxes, for example, at both Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Ravens' PSINet Stadium, facilities owned by the Maryland Stadium Authority. And the District was going to have a luxury skybox at MCI Center until the financial control board, in response to public outrage, vetoed then-Mayor Marion Barry's wish.

Not being a public official, Casey has no box anywhere. He has never been offered Derby tickets. He has never even bought one from Churchill Downs. Although $30 tickets for standing-room spots are usually available, the 50,000 reserved seats "are sold out forever," Casey said. Those are the ones he wants, because they offer the best view.

So he buys from scalpers. And on Derby Saturday, May 1, he bought three $42 tickets for $300 from a scalper outside Churchill Downs. That was one more ticket than he and a friend needed, but the scalper demanded all or nothing. Seconds later, a man asked if Casey had an extra ticket. Next thing Casey knew, the man was an undercover police officer and Casey was being cited for allegedly charging $100 for a $42 ticket.

According to Sgt. Robert Fraction Jr., a spokesman for the Louisville police, a citation for scalping is like a traffic violation. It's a noncriminal offense with a maximum fine of $250. Casey was arrested, however, because he had no identification, Fraction said, "so we had no way of knowing whether he'd show up for court." Casey also had "a large sum of money," which Fraction said was "kind of an indication he's been doing this a while."

Casey admits he had more than $3,000, but for good reason: to bet and buy gifts.

Casey admits he had no photo ID, but also for good reason: He'd been mugged once at the Preakness and thought his wallet would be safer locked in the trunk of his rental car at Churchill Downs.

Unable to persuade the officer to help him fetch his ID, Casey wound up being held more than 13 hours, he said, including one stretch in a holding cell in which another prisoner repeatedly grabbed him in the crotch, to the amusement of other prisoners. Wearing tan slacks, a white button-down shirt and an orange sport coat, Casey said, "I stood out like a sore thumb. . . . I was the show."

Eventually released by judicial order, he returned to Maryland and refused to pay any fine. He wanted a trial. He doesn't believe he was scalping and is appalled at how the authorities treated him. "I'd never been inside a jail in my life," he said.

As part of their defense, Casey's Louisville attorneys subpoenaed Churchill Downs to find out to whom Casey's tickets were issued originally, so that they could trace how they changed hands and how their value had risen, to prove Casey was not a profiteer. After the subpoena led to Patton's office, media reports followed, apparently the result of news tips, according to Casey's attorneys, Paul Gold and Frank Mascagni, who said they were not the tipsters.

Eventually, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Patton's office received 553 tickets, all told, dispatching them to recipients of its choosing and sending their checks to Churchill Downs.

Denis Fleming Jr., Patton's general counsel, said the practice dates to at least the mid-1970s and is a wise one, given the Derby's prestige: "It is a vast networking opportunity, particularly in the realm of economic development." Tickets go to companies that are considering investments in the state, Fleming said, and to "friends of the administration" and state officials who can help socialize with the executives being courted.

Patton's predecessor, Brereton Jones, put a somewhat different spin on the practice, telling the Courier-Journal that the tickets were a way of "saying thank-you" to political supporters "without harming the taxpayers in any way."

"It's a heck of lot better to reward people . . . that way than give some incompetent political hack a job in state government," Jones told the paper.

Kentucky isn't the only state that takes advantage of a Triple Crown race, allegedly for self-promotion. For each Preakness, Maryland routinely pays the Maryland Jockey Club for several hospitality tents in the "corporate village" at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

In them, officials mingle with executives who might invest in Maryland, according to Marilyn Sappington, of the Department of Business and Economic Development, who said "the Preakness is the one event that will attract a CEO or a president to the state." This year, the state rented four tents for $60,000 to host about 400 people, the vast majority being courted executives, not state employees, Sappington said.

Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, said such efforts to promote development are of dubious value and further the impression of special favors for a few. An elected official who wants to attend a sporting event ought to do what everyone else does, Skullney said: Get in line to buy a ticket.

As for Casey, he goes on trial Monday. He's not too interested in the fallout of his case, except for this: Churchill Downs wants state permission to have lottery terminals, and Casey worries that it will be refused to avoid the appearance that it secured the right by making tickets available to Patton's office.

More than anything, Casey is unhappy that, despite the political stink, so little attention has been focused on what happened to him that day. But at least there's this: A racing official he knows, having read about his case, called up and said that if Casey ever needs Derby tickets, give a call.