09/03/2007 11:00PM

Getting real reform: Like pulling teeth

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TUCSON, Ariz. - While Rome burns, racing fiddles.

You would think, with the sport in flames, issues of substance would occupy leaders of the sport. They have a wide selection.

Declining ontrack attendance.

Illegal medication.

Lack of media coverage.

Racing surfaces.

Whipping.

Who can treat horse's teeth.

I beg your pardon? What was that last one again?

You know. Equine dentistry. Something has to be done, important racing officials have decided, about country bumpkins horning in on educated, high-paid veterinarians, and practicing equine dentistry without licenses.

Never mind that these uneducated guys have satisfied clients for years, and have loyal customers who wouldn't let anyone else float their horses' teeth, extract wolf teeth, or repair damage. Oh, I almost forgot, they also offer availability and reasonable fees.

They are regarded, however, by states with apparently nothing else to worry about, as illegal immigrants: not welcome but critically essential and important to the smooth flow of commerce, taking care of jobs that others don't want to do because it might dirty their hands, or their dignity.

These dental interlopers are so dangerous to racing that the New York Racing and Wagering Board has become preoccupied - you might say obsessed - with trying to stop them, despite the courts telling them as politely as possible to lay off.

For well over a year now, New York's board has been attempting to keep a popular and respected equine dentist named Chris Brown from practicing his profession. A lower court ruled that he did not need a license to do equine dentistry. The Racing and Wagering Board appealed the decision. A midlevel appeals court has not ruled on the substance of the case, but denied the Racing and Wagering Board an automatic stay of the lower court judge's decision, thus allowing Brown to return to his work and living. For now. He awaits the next legal development that threatens both. The racing board, fierce and tenacious on minor matters like these, soldiers on. Someone with clout, obviously, is speaking for the vets.

Now the great state of Texas has joined the battle, determined not to let these equine interlopers practice equine dentistry unless they go to vet school first.

The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has introduced a requirement that only government-licensed veterinarians will be allowed to practice equine dentistry.

There are clear indications they will practice anyway, largely because clients like Chamayne James want them to.

James won the world barrel-racing championship 11 times, giving her credentials of horse knowledge. She retired from competitive racing four years ago, but runs riding clinics around the country, so she speaks with some authority, and with insight and humor. She says almost 80 percent of the horses she sees at her clinics suffer from teeth or mouth problems, and that most of them have had dental work done by licensed veterinarians, not by equine dental practitioners.

"I would not go to my doctor to have my teeth examined," she told Loren Riemer of the Daily Texan. "Why would I take my horse to the vet for his?"

James says she will not use anyone other than an equine dentist named Randy Riedinger for dental work on her horses, regardless of the consequences.

Riedinger owns and teaches at his Texas Institute of Equine Dentistry, and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. Riedinger does not speak like a country bumpkin who needs expensive veterinary training.

"The public sorts out who they want to use, just like you can choose a certified mechanic or someone working out of a garage in their backyard to work on your car," he told reporter Riemer. "You pick the one who you know is passionate enough about his work to do a good job. You should have the same option for the care of your horses."

Another plaintiff in the suit against the medical examiners is Carl Mitz. An equine dentist for 22 years, he is fighting to save his profession, which he says includes between 300 and 500 equine dental practitioners and technicians statewide. He says not allowing them to continue their work would harm them and thousands of horses that no longer would receive the dental attention they need.

If racing and licensing boards spent as much time and energy trying to kick out cheaters as they do prosecuting equine dentists, everyone would be better off.

A word to these vigilant regulators: Open wide. You have cavities in your priorities that need immediate attention.