If the legal testimony and tips to the cops are proven to be fact, some of America's leading jockeys could be behind bars before they run the next Kentucky Derby. Three of those jockeys, all of whom vigorously deny guilt, will ride in the Preakness Stakes Saturday. Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez and Jacinto Vasquez could finish 1-2-3 on Codex, Colonel Moran and Genuine Risk.

Should they even be riding?

Does racing convince its customers it is a game of larceny by allowing them to ride?

Should not racing, which exists only for gambling purposes, be cleaner than Caesar's wife?

Cordero, Velasquez and Vasquez -- along with several other jockeys in several states -- have been named as conspirators in fixed-race gambling coups. Witnesses in trials have named jockeys who fixed races for a fee. The FBI is handling the cases.

Two weeks ago, when Vasquez won the Kentucky Derby aboard Genuine Risk, the jockey was asked an innocent question at a press conference. Would he compare Genuine Risk to another great filly he had ridden, Ruffian?

"I refuse to answer," Vasquez said with a smile, "because it might incriminate me."

A reporter, writing down those words, nudged the man next to him. "Jacinto's practicing for his trial," the ink-stained cynic said.

The very survival of racing is proof that man's cynicism knows no limits when he stands to make a few bucks. Sooner you would find Jimmy Carter picnicking at Chappaquiddick than you would find an honest man at the race track. Diogenes never took the subway to Aqueduct. What happens is that exposure to the races causes even the innocent to see thieves at every turn. A bettor wants one thing: he doesn't want a jockey to be a Boy Scout, he just wants to know which horse the bum is stiffing today.

Or which horse the trainer is sending out for only exercise.

Or which one the veterinarian is feeding slowdown pills.

It is true that much of this cynicism is self-serving. A bettor losing the grocery money will blame the burglars on the backstretch before admitting he couldn't pick Secretariat out of a herd of cows.

It is also true that racing doesn't give a damn whether the bettors believe every race is an hones athletic event.

The current scandal is proof.

A hoodlum went to the FBI with a story of having fixed races all over the East, races involving famous jockeys, races in which gimick bets (picking horses 1-2 in successive races, for example) returned huge payoffs.

In trials already completed, the hoodlum's testimony has been instrumental in the conviction of several jockeys. A trial now is under way in New York, where the names of Cordero, Velasquez and Vasquez have come up (the original hoodlum/fixer is not testifying in this one, leaving the singing up to a jockey who admits the fixes).

Where, during this seaminess, was racing?


As if it didn't matter.

As if it was business as usual.

Boys will be boys.

The New York stewards must have looked at films of the races under suspicion. They saw nothing. We assume they saw nothing because it is fact they reported nothing. No one was suspended, no one reprimanded. Of all the riders involved in crooked races, none was named by racing officials as having ridden funny races.

An expert observer of horse races once saw a jockey steer the favorite off the rail to let a buddy go through to victory.

"Did you see that?" the man said to a Saratoga steward entrusted with preserving his game's honesty.

No response came.

"The steward looked at me like I was nuts," the man said.

It would not be fair, of course, and it would probably be illegal as well, but if racing truly believed it had to run a straight game to survive, then the game's leaders would deal in fashion with the dirty linen hung out by a confessed race-fixer.

If racing lived on the public's trust instead of feeding on its cynicism, at the very least racing would hold a hearing for the riders and then issue a statement saying. "These men are innocent until proven guilty. All we have is the testimony of an admitted crook. These men will be allowed to work, and out investigation will continue."

Racing has not done even that.

What would Pete Rozelle do?

Let's say it's the week before the Super Bowl. Albeit illegal, gambling on football is a billion-dollar enterprise that has contributed to the National Football League's popularity. And now, the week of the Super Bowl, let's say there is a gambling trial under way.

In this trial, a former player testifies that he fixed games for pay. Not only that, he names other players who fixed games. And thoe players are still active; in fact they are going to play in the Super Bowl this week.

What does Rozelle do?

For nothing more heinous than betting $100 on his own team, Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers was suspended for the entire 1964 season. So was Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions. Rozelle a decade ago ordered Joe Namath to sell his New York restaurant when the NFL decided some of Joe's dinner customers were gamblers.

But now, with an admitted fixer testifying under oath that several more football players fixed game -- now with the Super Bowl two days away, what does Rozelle do?

Does he suspend the players immediately, as he did Hornung and Karras?

Or does he, under the foundation law of America, presume innocence until guilt is proven and so let them play in the Super Bowl under the dark disillusioning cloud of suspicion?

He suspends them.

He has to if he wants the public to believe his game is honest.

If a judge immediately orders the NFL to take the players back -- a judge certainly would, for no man can be deprived of his right to work on nothing more than the word of a confessed felon -- then Rozelle can take the players back and say, "We're not trying to hurt the players, we just are protecting the game."

He owes to the paying costumers.

So does racing.