In the wake of the Breeders' Cup Pick Six scandal, the racing industry hired Giuliani Partners to oversee the security of its betting systems and help repair its tarnished image. This move produced cynical reactions from many people who think the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is trying to whitewash its reputation by associating itself with former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The publisher of the Daily Racing Form, Steven Crist, wrote in a column: "It's not clear what anyone will be getting for his money other than the current credibility of the Giuliani name . . . given the firm's lack of expertise in either technology or racing. Giuliani's popularity, rather than a specific service, is being purchased."
It is not being purchased cheaply, and some critics suggest that Giuliani is rushing to cash in on his exalted status. But Giuliani himself said his firm took the NTRA as a client because he has a long-time fondness for the sport, and several of his partners, too, are hard-core racing fans.
"I got interested in racing in the late 1970s, when I was working in Kentucky as the receiver of a coal company in bankruptcy," he said in an interview. "I'd go out to Calumet Farm in the mornings and watch the horses and take photographs of them. I decided that as long as I enjoyed the horses, I'd figure out how you bet so you didn't get killed."
Giuliani went to the races at Keeneland, Belmont and Saratoga (where he spent part of two summer vacations), and took his handicapping seriously. "I studied charts to convert times at different distances," he recalled. "I studied the Daily Racing Form and tried to visualize how the race would be run. There's a real intellectual satisfaction in watching a race and handicapping it. And when the race happens the way you think, you feel like a very intelligent person."
Unlike so many politicians who would never admit publicly that they gamble, Giuliani says he likes to bet ("in moderation") and sees nothing wrong with it: "It's like investing in the stock market -- and at least you get the results faster." He might have added that before Oct. 26, horse racing looked like a more honest game than Wall Street.
The rigging of the Pick Six at Arlington Park jolted the sport as no other scandal has. Everyone who bets expects a measure of chicanery on the part of jockeys and trainers trying to take an edge. But seeking an edge is a lot different from an out-and-out fix, and few people in racing could have envisioned a cheater invading computer systems to alter bets after the races had been run.
Although the three perpetrators of the Breeders' Cup fix have been caught and pleaded guilty, the sport will not quickly recover from this blow to its image. The public's doubts about the integrity of horse racing surely grew after the scandal made front-page headlines in major newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times. Even worse, the game's established fans have become paranoid about parimutuel larceny. Many bettors had already been suspicious about certain fluctuations in odds or low payoffs, but now they think there has been a fix whenever anything on the tote board looks slightly out of line.
Racing needs to repair its general image as well as address the specific security questions highlighted by the Breeders' Cup scandal. For the latter concern, Giuliani said, his firm has a lot more to offer than his image.
"Our specialty is security," he said. "What we're doing is no different from what we do elsewhere with IT security: How do you secure a network against people invading it and taking advantage? Ernst and Young will do the underlying investigation, and we'll analyze it and come up with systems that provide assurance that schemes like this won't happen in the future. One of the things we should do is what's done in the stock market: identify any suspicious levels of transactions."
Although the technical issues involved in wagering security constitute a formidable challenge, they are solvable and, in fact, constitute the least of horse racing's problems. The game's popularity has been dropping steadily for more than two decades, and the Breeders' Cup scandal threatens to accelerate that decline. Giuliani would like to see more people drawn to racing by the things that appealed to him when he discovered racing in the 1970s -- the beauty of the animals and the greatest racetracks, the drama of great confrontations like the Affirmed vs. Alydar races.
"The sport needs to be reconceived for a younger generation," Giuliani said, though this often-cited goal is probably beyond the powers of the former mayor or anybody else. Even so, his association with horse racing may well prove to be more beneficial than most cynics assume. Yes, the sport may be paying a premium to be associated with his lustrous image, but the sport currently needs all the help it can get.