Eight years after some of America's most prominent jockeys were apparently fixing races regularly in New York, that state's Racing and Wagering Board has decided what to do about the scandal.
Nothing. Or, at least, nothing that makes any sense.
In a long-awaited report issued last week, the board said that races had almost surely been rigged at Saratoga in 1974, and that the jockeys it questioned were almost certainly lying. But there was not enough solid proof to warrant criminal sanctions against any of the wrongdoers. The board might take some mild disciplinary actions in the future, but its report offered only one concrete proposal: "It is recommended that, for the integrity of racing, exacta and trifecta betting be abolished."
Thus the only people punished as a result of the New York scandal would be the state's racing fans, who have shown that they like and prefer exacta and trifecta wagering. Exotic betting accounts for 60 percent of the business at the New York Racing Association tracks, and NYRA president Gerald McKeon said that implementation of the board's recommendation would be a financial disaster.
It would also be an exercise in sheer stupidity.
It is true that race-fixers in the 1970s concentrated their activities in exactas and trifectas. They did so for the same reason that the public likes these bets; they are potentially more lucrative than win, place and show wagers. But the notion that the existence of exotic bets gives rise to larceny that wouldn't otherwise exist is contrary to human nature. The sport had just as many race-fixing scandals, ringer scandals and doping scandals in the era before exotic wagering as it does now.
It is preposterous for New York racing officials to suggest that they can police races offering win, place, show and daily double betting, but not races with exactas and triples. In any case, supervising races requires alertness and intelligence on the part of the stewards.
Knowledgeable racing fans who were at Saratoga in 1974 knew that certain jockeys were putting their mounts under strangleholds with unusual frequency. The stewards should have known it, too. Jockey Benny Feliciano testified that he was offered a bribe to hold a horse at Saratoga that season; he reported the bribe attempt to the horse's trainer, who in turn reported it to the track stewards. They ignored it.
The only way to keep racing reasonably honest is for stewards to watch races vigilantly and, if they see a suspicious race, summon the jockey and ask, "What were you doing there?" Even if they take no action, the riders know they are being watched. But if they start to think they can get away with anything, corruption can grow and take root.
If the stewards fail to take some kind of contemporaneous action, however, the sort of problems will arise that ultimately crippled the New York investigation. "The trail got colder and colder," an NYRA official lamented. While jockey Jose Amy testified that such great riders as Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velasquez and Jacinto Vasquez had been fixing races, none of the participants in the alleged conspiracies confessed and implicated his fellow race-fixers. Presumably, the belatedness, slowness and ineptitude of the New York investigation encouraged the wrongdoers to stick together.
It is too late now to do anything about what happened eight years ago. Officials in New York (and every other racing jurisdiction) should be thinking about what they could do to stop future scandals from arising. But the proper course is surely not to take the simplistic, cosmetic and costly action of abolishing exotic wagers.