01/05/2007 12:00AM

Can't go wrong with full disclosure

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Dan McFarlane wasn't sure how his Dec. 2 claim of the 3-year-old colt Refinery would turn out, but for $50,000 of owner Les Blake's money, he was going to try to make sure it was money well spent.

So he vetted him and gelded him and took him back to McFarlane's home base at Turf Paradise, where Refinery was entered for the $24,200 Last Chance Derby on New Year's Eve.

Imagine McFarlane's surprise, therefore, when he was informed that Refinery was not only ineligible to run in the Last Chance, he was banned from ever competing in a parimutuel event in the sovereign state of Arizona. The reason: Refinery had been heel-nerved.

A son of Victory Gallop, Refinery was taken out of a fourth-place finish in a 7 1/2-furlong race on Hollywood Park's synthetic main track. McFarlane, the second leading trainer at the current Turf Paradise meet, can be forgiven if he thought he was getting a useful horse at a certain level, and one that had not been physically ravaged, since he had been trained to that point by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella for owner Wayne Hughes. Refinery was a $425,000 Hughes purchase as a 2-year-old.

"We're big boys," McFarlane said. "We can handle what we get. But I was stunned when I was told the horse had been nerved. I hadn't heard of it for so long."

It comes with the culture. According Dr. Leslie Salmons, official vet on duty at Turf Paradise, heel-nerving has been banned in Arizona since at least 1992. For McFarlane, who has been training primarily in Arizona for about 15 years, the issue never would have come up.

California, however, is very much in the majority among racing jurisdictions when it comes to allowing heel-nerved horses to race. Responses from officials in some dozen other racing states revealed that Iowa was the only place among those sampled to bar heel-nerved horses from competition, while it was okay in places such as New York, Kentucky, Florida, Maryland, and Louisiana.

Heel-nerving, more properly known as a neurectomy, is a form of blocking or desensitizing an area of the equine foot through either conventional or cryogenic surgery. According to records, Refinery underwent the procedure last July and subsequently was okayed to compete by an official veterinarian. He raced five more times for Mandella, winning once and going unplaced in a pair of stakes.

"I've heel-nerved one horse in maybe five years, and believe me, it doesn't work as good as it's advertised," Mandella said. "With Refinery, it was a case of a bone disease, or maybe an injury sustained as a young horse. When horses have damage to their coffin bone, they don't heal. It would be like needing a root canal and not doing it. In my mind, it's more likely to cause an injury getting off the pain, unless you take care of it."

The procedure was performed by Dr. Rick Arthur, Mandella's practicing vet at the time, who is now the California Horse Racing Board's equine medical director.

"In spite of how it sounds, it's a very common procedure, especially among show horses," Arthur said. "It's not done on a lot on racehorses, and it is done in very unique circumstances, as was the case with this horse. In his case, I was ultra-conservative, taking only one of the nerves out."

With names like Mandella and Arthur in the mix, a case of heel-nerving is easy to sensationalize. What the Refinery incident more truly represents, though, is another layer on the frustrating mountain of regulation inconsistencies faced by horsemen who do business in more than one state. Mandella himself was smacked by a twist in bleeder rules between California and Illinois in the fall of 2002, when he wanted to run Pleasantly Perfect in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park. He couldn't because the colt bled after winning the Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita.

But rules are rules, even in the cutthroat claiming world, and they need to not only be obeyed, but well advertised. The heel-nerving of Thoroughbreds, at least according to officials on the Southern California circuit, is highly unusual - "A handful, if that," noted Martin Panza, Hollywood Park's racing secretary - and their status is duly noted on the certificate from The Jockey Club that follows them from track to track.

According to the California racing rules, the list of heel-nerved horses must be maintained by the racing secretary and be available to any licensee. There is no requirement that such a list be publicly posted, however, setting up the unlikely scenario of a trainer asking a clerk of the course to pull a set of papers on a horse in for a tag so that they may double-check for a neurectomy. That's not how you play poker.

It's likely that from now on, because of the Refinery incident, the list of California's heel-nerved horses will be posted somewhere in neon lights. There may even be a case for noting them on overnights. If heel-nerving is a legal procedure deemed significant enough to require state vet review and certificate modification, it certainly deserves to receive the full light of day. Then we can talk about whether it should be done at all.