04/27/2005 11:00PM

Around any track, talk is cheap

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Aw, now that is really disappointing. The hearing into charges of "conduct detrimental to racing" against trainer Jeff Mullins was going to be the highlight of the spring, giving life to the dog days of California news-making while the Triple Crown dominates the national debate.

The California Horse Racing Board was ready to hold Mullins accountable for quoted utterances in a sports column published March 6 in the Los Angeles Times. Against the backdrop of the one-month quarantine imposed on Mullins runners for a high bicarbonate test at Santa Anita, the columnist conveyed the message that Mullins thought fans were idiots to keep betting on a game they couldn't win, and that the executive director of the racing board was suffering from a bad case of conflict of interest.

(Mullins, it should be pointed out, may have been at the cutting edge of a trend. Two weeks later, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley publicly referred to the jurors who acquitted actor Robert Blake of murder as "incredibly stupid.")

Whether or not the Mullins quotes were spot-on, misinterpreted, or taken out of context matters not. They were hot stuff, and the racing board was ready to bring Mullins to the dock for a stiff rebuff.

Then poof! This week the charges were dropped on the advice of State Deputy Attorney General James Ahern. Suddenly, the opportunity to sit ringside at a good, old-fashioned First Amendment free speech argument had disappeared.

It is hard to blame Ahern for advising the board to back away. The guy deserves a better case. Last year, Ahern fought a gallant battle to uphold a stewards' recommendation to ban Patrick Valenzuela for life, and he might have won had the term "hair strand" been part of the jockey's testing agreement rather than "hair follicle."

Just last weekend, Ahern took one again for the team at the Martin Wygod hearing. Shoulders slumped and out of ammo, Ahern offered no argument when the stewards dismissed a variety of charges out of hand, among them conduct detrimental to racing.

Still, a Mullins hearing would have been enlightening. If the current mood of the CHRB is to hold its licensees up to strict standards for what they say in public about the sport, then a whole new world of horse racing is upon us. Public relations becomes an enforcement tool, with commissioners and investigators hyper-tuned to everything from lurid headlines to pesky blogs. Pretty soon, racing would be run just like . . . Nascar.

The guys driving those magnificent machines are being nailed right and left these days for all sorts of behaviors, although most of them fall into the category of good ol' boys will be good ol' boys. To wit:

In early April, Nascar hothead Shane Hmiel was penalized 25 points in the Nextel Cup standings (don't ask) and fined $10,000 for waving the wrong finger at fellow driver Dale Jarrett during a tense moment of a race at Tennessee's Bristol Motor Speedway. A live TV camera in Hmiel's car captured the moment.

That was the same fine dealt to Dale Earnhardt Jr. last October for letting slip the "S" word during a post-race interview in Victory Lane after a winning race at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway. In Earnhardt's defense, he was happy when he said it.

Drivers Johnny Sauter, Mike Wallace, and Ron Hornaday Jr. have been similarly penalized for their "Deadwood" dialogue during live media interviews, which apparently goes against the party line that Nascar is family entertainment. Seems like you can take the boys out of the backwoods, but you can't take the backwoods out of the boys.

All of these transgressions fall under a "conduct detrimental" clause that by its nature allows great latitude in enforcement and interpretation. In horse racing, the issue traditionally has arisen over blatant association with illegal bookmakers, known drug dealers, and other unsavory types. The NFL and Major League Baseball have taken their harshest actions against players involved in gambling (see Paul Hornung, Pete Rose, the 1919 Chicago White Sox).

Racing regulators take note: Detrimental conduct also can have an economic spin, at least as defined by Nascar's ruling body. Last August, Jimmie Johnson, the circuit's leading driver at the time, was fined $10,000 for trying to block a display bottle of the beverage PowerAde from television view after a race in Pennsylvania. PowerAde is made by Coca-Cola, an official Nascar sponsor, while Johnson had an individual deal to promote products for Pepsi.

"I've got to find a new way to protect my sponsor when I get out of the race car," Johnson said.

So there you have it. Image is everything, especially when it impacts the bottom line.

In the end, Earnhardt made the most sense. Those with tender sensibilities should tread nowhere near such blood sports as horse racing and car racing. At any moment, in the blink of an eye, animals can crash, cars can burn, people will die. Compared with such graphic trauma, time spent huffing over harsh language seems a truly lame endeavor. As Earnhardt put it:

"If anybody was offended by the four-letter word I said . . . I can't imagine why they would have tuned into the race in the first place."