The Thoroughbred Racing Associations met in San Francisco last weekend with a cloud overhead. During the past year, the sport has been tarnished by racefixing scandals, ringer scandals and drug scandals. Industry officials acknowledged that they have a problem.

Although the problem of corruption is a complex one, representatives of various segments of the racing industry agreed on one of its principal causes. They blamed exotic betting -- exactas, triples and other gimmicks -- offering large payoffs that can make larceny profitable.

Keene Daingerfield, the state steward in Kentucky, called exotic wagering "a cancer on racing, a monstrosity." Another expert attested, "The corruption which flows from the exotics cannot be controlled."

A lot of corruption has flowed in recent years. The celebrated ringer case involving the two Venezuelan horses, Lebon and Cinzano, produced a $29,000 triple payoff at Belmont Park. The St. Valentine's Day fix at Bowie occurred on a triple race. Much of the handiwork of confessed race-fixer Tony Ciulla centered on exactas and triples.

Nevertheless, the notion that exotic betting actually causes corruption demands a shortsighted view of racing history and a naive view of human nature.

Druggings, ringers and fixers probably occurred much more frequently 50 years ago before exactas had been conceived. Although it may be more convenient and profitable for cheaters to operate in triple races, they are going to cheat, even if they can only bet to win, place and show.

(The Kentucky race tracks where steward Daingerfield presides do not offer many exactas, but they are the scene of more betting coups and larcenous machinations than most gimmick-crazy tracks.)

Delegates to the TRA convention were fond of citing the examples of Oaklawn Park (Hot Springs, Ark.), Ak-Sar-Ben (Omaha) and Keeneland (Lexington, Ky.) that have thrived without exotic betting. The enormous success of Oaklawn in particular is supposed to be proof that the public really wants old-style wagering.

But the illustration is a spurious one. Oaklawn (and every other track that has spurned gimmick betting) has enjoyed prosperity because it is the only game in town.There is no other track down the road from Hot Springs, Ark. -- enticing bettors with 10 exactas a day.

Jimmy Donn, last president of Gulfstream Park, detested gimmicks as much as the management of Oaklawn, but he capitulated in order to compete with the dog track and jaialai frontons that offer them in abundance. The customers want the exotics, and now Gulfstream has nine exactas and four triples every day.

Bettors enjoy exotic wagering because it has made racing far more interesting and exciting than it ever used to be. A decade ago, a man with a modest bankroll could not go to the track with any realistic hope of making a big score unless he hit the daily double or stabbed at implausible long shots. Now he can play logical horses in the exotics and take a chance to make a killing.

For more serious bettors, gimmicks have created opportunities that never used to exist. What does a handicapper do when he eliminates the favorite in a race and narrows the competition to three horses? A generation ago, he had to pass the race. Now he can play it agressively in exactas or triples.

Although old-timers consider exotic betting somehow tainted, the proliferation of exactas has been a blessing for good handicappers.

When the moralists in the racing industry say that exotic wagering causes corruption, they are essentially laying the blame for the sport's problems on the public's unwholesome appetites. This a copout.

The problems of the racing industry lie principally with the people who run the racing industry and have done such a dismal job of policing it. They ought to look for more effective ways to control and punish dishonesty rather than try to spoil the game for the players.