05/16/2005 11:00PM

Fermin merits more support


TUCSON, Ariz. - There is a cloud casting shadows on the best thing to happen in California horse racing in years, and the California Horse Racing Board should act quickly to blow it away.

The board should publicly make clear, strongly and unequivocally, its continued support and full confidence in Ingrid Fermin, who has taken some unjustified criticism for the mistakes of others.

The racing board chose Fermin as its executive director in January - and made its best decision in years in doing so - and it should stand foursquare behind her now.

Reformers have been targets throughout history. Ingrid Fermin knew that when she moved from the guarded seclusion of the stewards' stand to the open glare of the racing board office. She has noble goals and objectives for California racing, and in five short months in office she has been carrying them out effectively, and with dedication.

I met and talked at length with Fermin at a joint meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America in Indian Wells, Calif., in early March. I listened to her goals personally and also heard her candid comments when she spoke on a panel with fellow racing administrators Linda Tanaka of Ontario, Cheryl Buley of New York, and Connie Whitfield of Kentucky.

Fermin, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, is a former teacher who turned successfully to racing and has deservedly earned a reputation as a no-nonsense enforcer of racing's rules. She told me in Indian Wells what she hoped to accomplish in California: stronger penalties for rules infractions; effective surveillance of racing; updating medication testing procedures and embracing recommendations of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium; cleaning up pending medication cases that have been on the shelf far too long, some worthy and some inappropriate from the start, and speeding up administrative review; bringing an end to deal-making for offenses; and conducting sound investigations.

Ironically, the criticism directed at her now involves the latter issue, specifically the mishandled investigation of the Sweet Catomine matter, which was not sound. It was botched, but not by Ingrid Fermin and not by people she had hired or appointed. The matter ended with dismissal, as it should have. It was an unfortunate situation, but it is finished, and it should stay finished, without recrimination.

There are too many issues of far greater importance in California, as Fermin discussed with me in March. More stringent penalties are needed. Greater stable area surveillance is essential. It is imperative that the medication issue receive full attention, and it was addressed this week by the board's advisory committee that includes all segments of California racing. Testing now will be conducted entirely by the Ken Maddy laboratory at the University of California at Davis, a big step forward. The lab is named for the late state senator who loved racing with a passion and was California racing's greatest friend in the legislature.

After the Sweet Catomine debacle, quick action was taken to correct that mishap. Supervisors now must review investigations and pass them on to the chief supervisor for the region, followed by review by Fermin or the board's assistant executive director, Roy Minami. Fermin said she wants the material reviewed further by the deputy attorney general, who will tell investigators exactly what is needed in order to move forward.

When I spoke to Fermin in Indian Wells, she told me that she was prepared to take criticism, but that she hoped she would have the opportunity to focus fully on the issues facing racing in the state.

Everyone in California should hope so, too, and California racing should not let anything or anyone interfere with her pursuit of higher goals for the sport. She is knowledgeable and supremely qualified, a treasure for California racing. Like all treasures, she should be guarded and protected and allowed to pursue her ambitious agenda for progress.