07/16/2004 12:00AM

Attention yearling shoppers


NEW YORK - The elite yearling-sales season begins Monday with the two-day Fasig-Tipton July sale in Kentucky, followed by the Fasig-Tipton August sale in Saratoga on Aug. 10-12, and then the massive Keeneland auctions Sept. 13-25. The bidding will begin without Satish Sanan, one of the industry's leading buyers over the past decade, the master of Padua Stables, and owner of racetrack stars including Vindication, Cash Run, and Cajun Beat.

Sanan announced last week that he is boycotting the sales in the hopes of drawing attention to his crusade for the bloodstock industry to develop and enforce a basic code of ethics prohibiting fraud and collusion. The British Jockey Club recently instituted such a code, with violators subject to being banned from racecourses.

Sanan calls his boycott a "symbolic gesture." While it is unclear exactly what such a code would really accomplish, it is even less clear why the sales industry has not made at least a symbolic gesture of its own in response.

Buying and selling horses, especially unproven babies, is always going to be risky business. Potential bidders at a horse auction are not unlike potential mutuel-ticket purchasers at the track. Most people use the same basic historical information and then attempt to get an edge through additional research and advice. Buyers with more money than common sense, like horseplayers with the same imbalance, are going to lose in the long run. There is no way to legislate or regulate that everyone pays the correct price or that his selection will perform to expectations.

The difference is that a horseplayer does not have to worry about whether the people selling him the mutuel tickets have a vested interest in how his horse runs, or are receiving a secret commission on both the selling and cashing transaction at the window. He doesn't have to worry about whether the owner of the favorite is the hidden part-owner of a competitor. He doesn't have to pay a premium for his ticket because there are two shills pretending to bid and running up his price.

The sales companies are saying soothing things - that Sanan has raised interesting and important issues that should be widely discussed and addressed in some fashion. That's not enough. Sanan is right, and of course we should have a code of ethics that says fraud will not be tolerated.

Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland are widely respected companies that stand accused of no wrongdoing, and the vast majority of people in the breeding business try to raise good horses and sell them honorably. That's all the more reason to address the issue head-on rather than stalling and wishing it would go away. In an era when all other businesses are instituting overdue reforms to provide greater transparency and accountability, it would be a sign of strength rather than weakness for the horse business to say that it disapproves of swindling.

Instituting a code of ethics may be largely a symbolic gesture, but not making the effort sends a pretty chilling message to anyone contemplating buying a racehorse.

Dream on

Speaking of industries in need of a code of ethics, The Hollywood Reporter this week had a story that the actor Kurt Russell will direct and star in a new horse racing movie from DreamWorks: "Dreamer," the "fact-based" story of the Kentucky trainer and his 11-year-old son who nursed an injured horse back to health and won the Breeders' Cup.

If you're having trouble remembering exactly which Breeders' Cup this was, stop wracking your brain. The only "facts" upon which the story is based seem to be that there are horse trainers in Kentucky, that some children are 11 years old, and that there are races called the Breeders' Cup. No such story ever happened, any more than Seabiscuit won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap from 20 lengths off the pace after his rider had an inspiring conversation with another jockey during the race.

"I'm a big horse racing fan, and there are a lot of amazing horse stories out there," Russell told the Reporter. "This one is an amalgamation of a lot of different stories."

There's a word for an amalgamation of stories into one that never happened: fiction. There's another word for calling it a fact-based story, and it's something you don't want to step in at a yearling sale.