10/31/2007 12:00AM

Dark clouds coast to coast

EmailTUCSON, Ariz. - We have not reached the Promised Land just yet.

We have seen a truly exceptional horse in Curlin, and almost certainly have seen the last of him on the racetrack. The economics of breeding and the risks of racing are not bed partners.

We have seen an undefeated, soon-to-be-named juvenile champion in War Pass, trained by a champion human being in Nick Zito, and the two will provide constant winter hot stove chatter and media fodder for next spring's Kentucky Derby.

We had the welcome sight of once again seeing a racetrack jammed with people, despite three days of rain. Monmouth looked like old newspaper pictures of packed tracks of days gone by, except the men weren't wearing hats.

But there also were dark clouds other than those in the sky.

There was the far too frequently seen TV curtain of death, directly in front of the hushed Monmouth crowd, as the European hero George Washington almost reached the end of his Cup race, despite a shattered leg, and instead reached the end of his life.

There was television mention of two of Curlin's owners missing the Cup, residing in jail for problems happily unrelated to racing.

And there was Patrick Biancone, who a week earlier had said in a statement to the press that, "Most importantly, I wanted to resolve this matter before the Breeders' Cup, a celebration of our sport's greatest athletes - the horsesand their breeders and owners. It does not deserve the distraction that my situation would create. I do not want to cast a cloud over racing's most important day."

But he did, showing up on the backstretch before being asked to leave the grounds by Frank Zanzuccki, the executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission.

A continent away, on the West Coast, there are the bizarre developments involving trainer Darrell Vienna, who also is a practicing attorney. He is smart, respected, and knowledgeable about both law and medication. His stable had not one but two class 3 Clenbuterol violations with the same horse, Medici Code, owned by Herrick Racing Stable.

Current rules in California give offenders the right to pick the path of due process afforded them. They can have a hearing conducted by the stewards, or they can have their case heard by an administrative law judge. The latter is the slower path, and usually favors the horseman involved, since administrative law judges, and frequently deputy attorney generals who handle prosecutions, normally know little about the complex intricacies of racing medication and the trainer's responsibility rule, which could wind up the nexus of this case.

To eliminate that flaw, the racing board's activist chairman, Richard Shapiro, got the law changed, working with the board's executive director Ingrid Fermin and with legal assistance from Darrell Vienna in drafting the new law. As of Jan. 1, AB 1616 will eliminate the dual choice provision and provide for cases to be heard by hearing officers who understand racing and its complexities. Ironically, Vienna could be the last, or one of the last, taking advantage of the administrative law judge option.

It would seem that Vienna, with his intellect and background, is far too smart and savvy to get involved in two class 3 medication violations. But he is involved in them, and complaints against him have been filed and are proceeding in normal fashion, given his choice of an administrative law hearing.

Shapiro, who once co-owned a horse that Vienna trained, has recused himself from the case, an embarrassment to the chairman who has led major reform as the dynamic leader of the best California racing board in recent memory. If political opponents succeed in their attacks against him, it will be a major setback for California racing.

Elsewhere, politicians also are having a field day cutting up racing. In Albany, New York's political air is poisoned, the fight between Senate majority leader Joe Bruno and Gov. Eliot Spitzer over the New York Racing Association reaching what one veteran observer called "an unprecedented level of animosity."

In Maryland a special session of the legislature that began Monday is considering Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal for slots at tracks to save Maryland's once vaunted racing industry. A Washington Post poll showed 70 percent of Maryland voters approve of that, but political infighting ignores public wishes.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick threw racing to the wolves, opting for three casinos, but Suffolk Downs and the Wonderland dog track suddenly have become partners, trying for one of the three casinos at Suffolk in East Boston.

So enjoy the memories of two days of championship racing last weekend, and wait for the Derby and War Pass. The pols can't touch those two.