02/11/2009 12:00AM

Anti-whip movement gets cracking

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TUCSON, Ariz. - It was baseball's turn this week, as horse racing got a brief respite from headlines thanks to New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez. And not only A-Rod, but other major stars of that sport as well.

Revulsion at drug use is becoming so commonplace that it dulls the senses.

The overlooked tragedy in all this is not Rodriguez, despite his transgressions or whatever with Madonna or whomever. He already has paid that account in part with the departure of his lovely wife, who had enough.

It is not merely that he admitted using drugs from 2001 through 2003 while with the Texas Rangers, either, or that he begged off by saying, "All my years in New York have been clean."

And it is not that he was accompanied to prime spots in sports pages and front pages by Michael Phelps, the world's best swimmer, or to a far lesser degree by Dana Stubblefield, the former All-Pro NFL tackle given two years of probation for cooperating with the feds in naming other major-leaguers and helping break the BALCO case.

All of those developments are troubling, but they go far behind the headlines.

They go to the kids of the country, and indeed the world, who hold - or have held - these headliners as heroes. The danger is that they still do, overlooking their sins for the gloss of their accomplishments, tainted or not.

If we have reached the point where Rodriguez and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and the rest have so blurred the vision of the young that they look right past their sins, then we are in deep trouble.

If those kids are old enough to not understand, or not care, what it means for officials to notify major league ball players in advance that they are going to be tested, then we are in even deeper trouble. If they grow up not understanding what integrity means, we may be lost.

One world-class athlete who comprehends this now is Phelps. He will be missing from Kellogg's cereal boxes from now on, leaving Tony the Tiger to hold the space alone, and roar in joy at not having to share it.

All of this attention may divert furor away from horse racing at the moment, but there is a lesson to be learned here, and it was discussed at the Racing Congress in Las Vegas last week.

The issue happened to be whipping, not drugs, but they are interchangeable and in a sense indistinguishable in the eyes of the public. The usual cry was heard that gamblers want to see horses whipped so they know there is maximum effort, but it took other panelists, including this moderator, to point out that today's public is one that dislikes seeing animals abused, and that the people who matter most are not the ones who are at the tracks but those who are not.

This is the silent minority - or is it majority? - that has abandoned racing because it considers the sport cruel to animals. How many is it? Who knows? But you can be sure, if you bother to ask, that it is a sizable number.

The discussion in Las Vegas happened to deal with whipping, a downer in both harness and Thoroughbred racing, but it applied as well to chemistry. Alan Leavitt, the master of Walnut Hall Ltd. in Kentucky, compiled an album of support from top trainers, drivers, and officials in the sport, and it helped pass the nation's strongest anti-whipping bill in the traditional capital of American racing.

When the century-old Grand Circuit visits Lexington, Ky., next fall, harness racing's best drivers will face new rules that require them to hold a line in each hand. That in itself prevents one-handed whipping, and the rule also prevents raising the whipping arm over the level of the helmet, now another safeguard against punishing one-handed whipping. Another new padded whip has appeared in Canada, and famed driver Bill O'Donnell, who has driven almost 6,000 winners and is eighth on the all-time list of harness racing money winners with almost $98 million in purses, noted that whipping under the level of the sulky shafts also can punish a horse as well as hitting him above. O'Donnell is president of the Canadian horsemen, and the name of his former Meadowlands rival John Campbell, who has driven horses earning more than $250 million, appeared high on Leavitt's list of backers.

The wind is shifting, and to the question of whether it likes whips or not, the horse says neigh.