09/05/2005 11:00PM

Boycott - one step backward

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Kentucky's Thoroughbred horsemen - at least some who are represented by the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association - are still fighting against being dragged bodily into the 21st century.

They lost another round last Friday when a state circuit court judge refused to block the new medication rules, first approved by the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, then by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, and then by the governor of Kentucky, Ernie Fletcher.

Now that a judge has denied them an injunction, they are turning to their court of last resort - politicians - to keep them from having to accept what is being accepted in most other racing jurisdictions around the country.

A legislative committee has to approve the changes, and a few of its members have been quoted as saying that they see no real need for reform, that they have detected no public outcry for change. It would be a sad day in the Bluegrass if politicians who may or may not know anything about racing rejected the work of dedicated professionals who have worked long and hard to bring reform to the permissiveness of the state's racing.

The horsemen - or at least some of them based in the Louisville area - are resorting to another exercise in folly, if not futility. They did not enter their horses for Wednesday's opening card at Turfway Park, Kentucky's first Thoroughbred track to race under the new rules and the first in the nation to introduce a Polytrack racing surface under actual race conditions.

Turfway had to keep its entry box open an extra day to fill its 10-race card, but happily did so and had some races with full fields. One trainer, Walter Bindner, said he was sending horses that he had planned to run this week at Turfway to Chicago's Arlington Park. He did not say whether he expected to encounter permissiveness there - in which case he would be disappointed - or whether he was simply registering an expensive protest.

Marty Maline, who runs Kentucky's HBPA, was careful during the court hearing last week to emphasize that the HBPA did not or was not condoning a boycott at Turfway. He merely said he had heard that horsemen were considering one.

A boycott or strike or whatever you choose to call it is the route of madness in racing. The losses suffered can never be made up.

Ten years or so ago, horsemen in Montreal decided to boycott Hippodrome de Montreal, once known as Blue Bonnets, over some contentious issue.

They did so just as Montreal's then gleaming new casino was opening, and it was pointed out to the horsemen that if track patrons switched to patronizing the state-of-the-art casino, they were not likely to return to the racetrack.

The horsemen struck, the patrons fled and did not return. Not then, not now.

Horse racing cannot afford to offend its customers with boycotts or strikes. And the notion that trainers and veterinarians cannot survive under Kentucky's new rules, when others are doing so under similar rules, is fiction.

There is room for some compromise, and Jim Gallagher, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, is working toward it. He notified horsemen that first-time offenders of the new rules will be issued a warning rather than a penalty, and he has agreed to discuss withdrawal times, the lack of which the horsemen and vets claim puts them at huge risk. Of all things, clenbuterol turns out to be an issue once again.

It is ironic that while all this is going on, Turfway is introducing, at great expense, revolutionary racing progress. Its Polytrack surface, hailed in training trials at Keeneland, gets its first test under race conditions.

Track president Bob Elliston deserves thanks from horsemen, rather than the slap in the face he is getting. A gracious host, he probably will take back, or let in, the horsemen who left him in the lurch.

If Kentucky horsemen are really concerned about the welfare of their horses, they should be eager to give them comfortable footing rather than clenbuterol, which has been one of the substances the horsemen are ready to die for.

They will die hard, unless the pols step in to help them. What a travesty that would be after all the diligent work done in the last year to bring respectability to Kentucky racing.