04/24/2005 11:00PM

Board's turn to be questioned

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Those who bore witness to the stewards' hearing at Hollywood Park last Saturday morning, convened to hear the complaints lodged against owner Martin Wygod by the California Horse Racing Board over events surrounding Sweet Catomine's performance in the Santa Anita Derby, emerged from the three-hour ordeal in a head-shaking daze.

What had been presented to the public as a sober litany of serious accusations against Wygod - including conduct detrimental to racing - turned out to be nothing more than a hurriedly compiled wish list based on bad press and snippets of unprocessed information.

Midway through the session, it was clear that the case against Wygod was almost non-existent. On the matter of falsely identifying Sweet Catomine to the Santa Anita stable gate attendant, when she was shipped back and forth from the track for a hyberbaric chamber treatment at the Alamo Pintado clinic in Los Olivos five days before the local derby, there was neither evidence nor testimony pointing to Wygod. On the charge that Wygod made conflicting pre- and post-race statements regarding Sweet Catomine's physical condition, thereby depriving the public of accurate betting information, counsel for the racing board barely raised the highly subjective issue. The charge that Wygod's actions were detrimental to racing stemmed from the first two, and therefore fell flat, as well.

"I was a little surprised that there wasn't more to the case," said John Harris, chairman of the racing board, who attended the hearing. "Clearly, mistakes were made. I'll have some questions to ask, and hopefully we can learn from those mistakes."

To hear the boss talk like that can't be good. Ingrid Fermin, who is still in her opening months as executive director of the CHRB, must take the heat.

Fermin noted in her post-mortem statement that "it is imperative that we treat all licensees equally." Certainly, no one would argue the point. The fact that Wygod is a member of The Jockey Club, director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and the owner of one of California's oldest and most respected breeding and racing operations should have meant absolutely nothing if he had transgressed CHRB rules.

But it cuts both ways. In treating all licensees equally, the CHRB is obligated to make sure accusations have solid foundation in the law. Every case brought before the stewards - from bad debts to bad tests - should require the highest possible standards of evidence. If there is not enough evidence to defend the accusation in an open hearing, then either find more or drop the matter.

Reached on Monday at her Del Mar office, Fermin recounted her conversation with CHRB investigator Christopher Loop at the outset of the inquiry, as heated media reaction to Wygod's post-race statements mounted.

"I told [Loop] that when you reach the point that you feel you have enough for an accusation. . . one of my important things is that we do not discriminate or incriminate people based on who they are," Fermin said. "We've heard this forever, that the little guy gets hung while the big guy gets covered up. The name was not an issue for me."

Sounds admirable. But in an overly zealous effort to "treat all licensees equally," was the executive director guilty of rushing headlong into the prosecution of a big fish? Nailing a pelt like Wygod's would have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the CHRB plays no favorites, as was the perception during the reign of Fermin's predecessor, Roy Wood.

In the real world, however, sloppy prosecutions of big names come with a price. As the old saying goes, "If you are going to shoot at the king, you'd better kill him." Putting someone like Wygod on trial with flimsy evidence can trigger all manner of consequences, from downstream litigation to an erosion of confidence in the integrity of subsequent prosecutions.

It will be Fermin's job to absorb and correct the dreadful mistakes made by her department in going forward unprepared in the Wygod case. She conceded that procedures need to be changed.

"Except for the very routine matters, I have instructed our investigators to contact a representative of the State Attorney General's office and go over the entire thing to decide if there is or isn't a case," she said. "If there isn't, then get it over with and do not proceed with things that are not appropriate."

There was cheering from parts of the hearing room last Saturday when steward Tom Ward declared the charges against Wygod dismissed. But there were no winners. Only losers.

Wygod has yet to satisfactorily explain to the racing public why it was necessary to run Sweet Catomine in the Santa Anita Derby at all, especially if he had serious reservations about her condition. Clearly, he was suffering from a debilitating case of Kentucky Derby Fever, that annual springtime scourge. She is not the only 3-year-old to be rushed against nature this year (see Going Wild, Golden Shine, Rockport Harbor, to name a few). She was only the most famous.

In truth, the racing board owes the sport an apology for turning Wygod's public hearing into a desperate fishing expedition for facts their investigators were unable to provide. Then, still on their knees, the board must plead forgiveness from a racing public who thought there was a legitimate case being made in their best interests. Anything less can be considered conduct detrimental to racing.