09/30/2003 11:00PM

Barbarian at the starting gate

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ARCADIA, Calif. - With the release of a Los Angeles Times poll Tuesday that gave one particular candidate a giddy lead in the race to replace reeling California Gov. Gray Davis, it suddenly became clear why all those trainers and owners are willing to give the Breeders' Cup Classic a wide berth later this month at Santa Anita.

It is not because of stud fees of $100,000 looming on the near horizon for those two priceless sperm banks, Mineshaft and Empire Maker.

It is not because of some intuitive reluctance on the part of a Hall of Fame trainer to squeeze a ripe lemon like Candy Ride in pursuit of a $2 million prize.

It is not the obvious charms of winning every last race in Chicago and Louisville, which seems to be the goal for Perfect Drift, or the admirable support of the New York racing and breeding incentive program, which has captivated Funny Cide.

It is not even a renewed respect for the talents of Medaglia d'Oro, who merely ran the second-best mile and a quarter of the year when he finished second in the Pacific Classic.

No, it is simpler than all that. The real reason behind all of this ducking and dodging of the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic is a chilling and deep-rooted fear.

A fear of Arnold.

Californians are now only a few days away from electing as their governor an action movie hero who laughs about sticking a woman's head in a toilet and thinks it's funny to provide two large buses for his campaign press emblazoned with the names "Predator" and "True Lies." Okay, it is funny.

In less than a week, if the polls are to be believed, Davis will be recalled and Arnold Schwar-zenegger will win a plurality of the votes cast in a separate replacement election. Next Tuesday is election day, a dark day at Santa Anita. A very dark day.

The prospect of a Schwarzenegger administration in charge of the world's sixth largest economy has made California both a national laughingstock and an object of perverse admiration. There are those who wonder why he couldn't have practiced first on someplace smaller - Austria, for instance, or Minnesota - and yet there is envy in the air. Cocksure and secure, Californians figure they can waste one in a dramatic act of broad-spectrum protest and still insulate themselves from any ramifications.

"The rest of America feels about California the way the rest of the world feels about America," said Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" last week. "They hate us because we do what we want. They think we're too blessed and too free, and it makes them nuts, in the dreary hovels of Kabul, and Tikrit, and Lubbock, Texas."

To be sure, Gov. Davis has been no pal to the racing industry. There will be no tears shed in the boardrooms or on the backstretch if he is recalled.

As chief of staff in the administration of former governor Jerry Brown, Davis would sometimes loom as a heavy-handed presence in California Horse Racing Board business. As governor himself, Davis dragged his heels on signing legislation to legalize phone account betting, allowing California racing to dangle in the wind while the rest of the country ramped up. When it came to the growing alarms of the workers' compensation insurance crisis, Davis appeared tone-deaf to an issue that has hit racing stables hard. During his first administration, Davis even vetoed an unassuming bill that would have aligned California racing with a much-needed national licensing program, absurdly citing a reluctance to relinquish local control of the process.

But Arnold? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Who has yet to even hint at a coherent strategy for the solution of California's economic woes? Wait until Der Governor gets a load of racetrack license fee relief legislation. Hasta la vista, tax breaks.

The last time Mineshaft's trainer, Neil Howard, brought a big horse to California, the ground bounced beneath his feat and the barn walls rattled from a major-league temblor. The poor guy almost saddled Summer Squall that very instant and rode him out of town. Don't expect Howard to think the coast is clear, especially now that the place will be run by earth-quaking Conan the Barbarian.

So dream on, racing fans, and what a dream race it would have been, a Classic topped by Mineshaft, Candy Ride, Perfect Drift, Empire Maker, and Funny Cide. Such a collection of bona fide stars rarely exists in the same sweet season. Even more aggravating is the fact that not one of them is currently suffering from anything more than a minor boo-boo, at least according to their people.

Perhaps the whole thing will come together better next year, when the Breeders' Cup will be staged in a state known for its governmental stability and the good common sense of its citizenry. Something like Arnold could never happen in Texas.