10/07/2003 12:00AM

For grooms, a long-overdue reward


TUCSON, Ariz. - There have been plenty of bad horses that couldn't be helped by good grooms, and some potentially good horses that were ruined by bad grooms, but very few really top horses that raced without a good groom.

Anyone who has raced horses, and certainly anyone who has trained them, knows that a good caretaker can make the difference between victory and defeat, and between a happy, healthy, winning horse and an unhappy, losing one. Grooms can be every bit as important as trainers, and in some cases more important, but they labor long and hard without recognition beyond the borders of the backstretch, and frequently without compensation commensurate to their worth.

In Ontario, where racing prosperity now falls from the starry skies of slots, there is a move afoot to change that.

The Ontario Harness Horse Association has asked the Ontario Racing Commission to consider a rule change that would allow 1 percent of harness and Thoroughbred purses payable to an owner to be automatically deducted and transferred to the licensed groom of a winning horse. The rule would be voluntary, but if passed it is likely that peer pressure would make it common practice, at the risk of losing hard-to-find grooms. The commission - which has asked for comment from all racing groups in the province - says it is "very supportive of the objectives of the program."

The proposal, as submitted, is called "Linking Grooms to Prosperity." The harness association hopes that once operational it will encourage people to enter and learn the racing business at the groom level, and it has put its money where its mouth is.

The harness association offers medical and dental premium assistance to every groom who is a member of the association, at a cost to the organization of $160,000 a year. Standardbred Canada, the sport's record-keeping and administrative body, also has a disability insurance program available to members who are injured while caring for a racehorse.

According to the harness association, which is basing its numbers on annual purse levels of $170 million in the latest racing commission report, the plan would provide $1.7 million to grooms, with more than 3,400 currently licensed and eligible for the program. Significantly, the number of grooms in Ontario has decreased in the last five years, even as racing has boomed, while the number of other licensed racetrack workers in the province has increased.

The plan, if approved, would reduce the amount of purse money available to owners, and would require the name of the groom to be added to entry blanks when a horse is entered to race. If no groom is named, no fee would be deducted. Changes would be required in record-keeping software, and that cost would be paid for by the horsemen's associations. Grooms' records would be changed if they move from stable to stable, or leave the sport in Ontario. Checks would be distributed monthly.

There has been little official recognition of grooms in racing. The HBPA has backed a national education program for them, in both English and Spanish, and Harness Tracks of America has for 20 years issued a Caretaker of the Year award, an oil painting of the groom and his or her favorite horse, done by noted equine artist Andrea Steiner Harman. In cooperation with Hanover Shoe Farms, the biggest breeding farm in the world, Harness Tracks of America also provides satin honors jackets to all grooms nominated by owners or trainers.

But grooms largely toil in anonymity, despite the key role they play in the welfare and success of their horses.

The Ontario commission has taken another pioneering step as well. It has hired a laboratory called Vita-Tech to manage and conduct its new EPO testing program, which gets underway Nov. 1. Any horse entered to race in the province as of that date will be subject to testing for antibodies of erythropoetin or darbepoetin, and all claimed horses will be tested. A positive test on a claimer will constitute grounds for revoking the claim.

If antibodies are detected in the horse's blood, the horse will be placed on the veterinarian's list and not be eligible to race until a negative antibody blood sample is produced. All horses reported under the commission's recent Death Registry program, in which a horse that dies within 60 days of a race must be reported and undergo post-mortem testing, also will be subject to the EPO test.

Prosperity is not the only development in Ontario these days. Progress is moving with it, and the two make a potent entry.