"People perceive me as a white knight," Allan R. Dragone said after he had completed the first six months in his new job. "I wish they wouldn't."

When he was named chairman of the board of the New York Racing Association, Dragone took charge of an organization whose fortunes have been in a long decline and whose problems may be insoluble. Yet as Dragone has faced and begun to attack those problems, he has raised hopes he might be able to rescue a sport in distress.

There was a time when New York racing held unquestioned preeminence in U.S. racing, when crowds of 50,000 would cheer Kelso and Dr. Fager. But since 1972, New York has been the model of the way the industry shouldn't be run.

The law creating off-track betting in New York was a disaster, for it gave the NYRA tracks no control over the selling of their own product through OTB. Instead, six different political entities were created to run OTB throughout the state. They took customers and revenue away from the tracks, and New York City's OTB parlors dealt a further blow; they were generally so sleazy they alienated people from the whole sport.

As attendance at Aqueduct and Belmont Park dropped year after year, many fans thought NYRA's management grew fatalistic and complacent. The dwindling number of bettors who go to see live races can recite a catalogue of complaints about the quality of racing, small fields, management that seemed oblivious to its customers' desires.

It was an indication of the seriousness of NYRA's problems when its board of directors chose the new chairman. Traditionally, this post has gone to men best known as members of the horsey set, scions of America's most famous racing families.

Dragone, by contrast, is a Harvard Business School product who rose to presidency of the Celanese Corp. and vice chairmanship of Burlington Industries. He had been a member of NYRA's board of directors since 1985, and presumably was tabbed for the top spot.

One of Dragone's first conspicuous moves showed he wasn't afraid to disturb the status quo. New York's announcer, Marshall Cassidy, had driven fans crazy for years with his bored, unemotional delivery, but he was seemingly entrenched. Dragone chose to replace him as of September with Tom Durkin, whose exciting race calls have been a high point of the Breeders' Cup telecasts. Score one for Dragone.

The new chairman installed a sharp new marketing director for the NYRA tracks. He ordered changes in the public address system at the tracks. He hired consultants to study NYRA's food service. "We want to create an atmosphere of customer satisfaction," he said.

Dragone has talked about the possibility of NYRA's acquiring little Finger Lakes Race Track in upstate New York. And his first year on the job, he successfully worked with state political leaders to win passage of a racing bill that gave some benefits to NYRA. But even that success demonstrated just what a formidable problem OTB poses for New York tracks.

"We've got six off-track betting corporations competing with each other and competing with NYRA," Dragone said. "The competition has reached some crazy states. In that bill, we got permission to have telephone betting -- but there has to be a $1,000 minimum balance to open the account. Every OTB has telephone betting with a non-minimum balance. We got permission to open one teletheater -- but 18 months from now." Meanwhile, OTB operates teletheaters in Manhattan that cut deeply into NYRA's business.

The relationship between racing and off-track betting is such a tangled mess that New York has shown other states just what to avoid. Everywhere else, the tracks themselves have maintained control of off-track or inter-track betting -- as in Maryland, where the track owners operate the wagering at Pimlico and Laurel. What Dragone seeks is at least some control of OTB in New York.

"It's not going to be instantaneous," he conceded, but he envisioned a "gradual partnership" of NYRA and OTB.

But why would OTB cede any money or power to the tracks? The regional OTB operations are little fiefdoms, sources of jobs and power for politicians. Dragone predicted, "From a business point of view, some of the OTBs can go under in three to five years; at that point, drastic changes can happen."

Even if he is right, it will not be easy for NYRA to wrest some control of OTB, because the OTB organizations have such political strength. Dragone will not shape racing in New York the way the late Frank De Francis did in Maryland and Dick Duchossois did in Illinois. And Dragone knows it.

"Changes in New York," he said, "are going to require a strong partnership with the legislature. I love the horse business and I want it to succeed, but making changes here is going to take a lot more than Al Dragone."