07/19/2007 11:00PM

California panel confronts perception


DEL MAR, Calif. - It seems blasphemous right now to write about anything other than surf, sun and fabulous summertime sport. But the game still hangs together on nuts and bolts (some would say a wing and a prayer), and a few pieces of the necessary hardware were on display Thursday morning at the monthly meeting of the California Horse Racing Board.

Every racing fan should attend a board meeting now and then, just to see how the sausage of regulation is ground and packaged. A half-hour or so of exposure will do the trick, and for those who get hooked, there is always a real-time webcast available for viewing by the pool.

Once in a while, fireworks will flare. But don't tune in expecting anything more entertaining than C-SPAN 3. Most of the California Horse Racing Board's business relates to the assignment and fine-tuning of racing dates, and tinkering with rules relating to medication and licensing.

A former racing board chairman once said that the primary mandate of the board was to maximize the state's license fee revenue derived from the business of racing. An admirable goal, to be sure, since the take for the state rises or falls in direct response to betting handle, which in turn determines purses. But the official mission statement of the racing board also includes the regulation of parimutuel wagering "for the protection of the betting public" and the promotion of horse racing and breeding industries.

Even so, there is still a wide swath of industry reality not covered by the categories noted in the mission statement. For lack of a better description, this fourth mandate could be referred to as concern for the health and welfare of the athletes - both equine and human - that make horse racing a gambling game distinct from pai gow or the Big Spin.

On Thursday, all seven commissioners, including chairman Richard Shapiro, heard testimony on one such welfare issue - namely heel-nerving, a last-resort and relatively uncommon veterinary procedure that is legal in California and 34 other racing states.

A proposal was on the table that would change California's rules to bar any horse who had been heel-nerved from racing in the state. As pointed out by Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, such a rule would put California on a par with such "minor" racing jurisdictions as Arizona and Iowa, while flying in the face of nationwide efforts toward more uniform racing rules.

Arthur was opposed to any rule change, citing the longstanding and widespread veterinary acceptance of the procedure in nearly all areas of equine performance. He compared it to a root canal in a human, as a benign and highly localized elimination of feeling in a small portion of the equine foot.

Arthur also pointed out the difficulty of detection if all horses had to be inspected for a heel-nerve history, and the marginal nature of its recorded use, at least in California. Of the several thousand horses currently considered in training on the circuit, there were exactly two denoted as having been heel-nerved. In Arthur's view, changing the rule would create more problems than it purported to resolve.

Board chairman Shapiro, however, disagreed with his medical director. He suggested that there might be more heel-nerved horses at the track than reported, and he was leery of claims that the procedure did not significantly impact the gait of the racehorse. Shapiro, who owns a handful of Thoroughbreds, conceded that he has neither a veterinary degree nor a trainer's license, but he stuck to his contention that heel-nerving "sounds bad," and that public perceptions were an important concern.

Memo to the chairman: There are a lot of things in horse racing that sound bad to the public's untrained ear, and many that look even worse. Whips, for instance, and riders whose casual jargon includes descriptions of "hitting him left-handed." Some races are called "handicaps" for Pete's sake. And how can the term "breaking a maiden" be explained in polite company?

Heel-nerving would sound just fine if old-timey racetrackers could have gotten their tongues around posterior digital neurectomy, which is the same thing and doesn't take that much longer to say. But then, old-timey racetrackers never figured their game would be scrutinized in chat rooms.

"We know it sounds worse than it is," said owner and breeder Marsha Naify, who conveyed to the board unanimous support for the rule change from the Thoroughbred Owners of California board of directors. "But the public's perception is a concern. Are we doing too much to get [horses] to the track?"

Fair enough and point well taken. But as long as the racing board is taking a hard look at such a relatively rare procedure as heel-nerving, how about shining a light on a few things that don't sound quite as primitive, but have far more serious effects on the soundness of of racehorses? Let's start with intra-articular injections, the repeated needling of knees and ankles with corticosteroids to keep some horses in the game.

Commissioner John Harris, leery of the heel-nerving rule change, summed it up best.

"It may feel good," he said. "But you may end up with a bad rule."