03/25/2004 1:00AM

Guilt by association twofold


ARCADIA, Calif. - Last Sunday morning, as millions of Americans settled into their breakfast traditions of flapjacks and huevos rancheros, they turned to their favorite strips in the Sunday funny pages.

Some folks stick with "Peanuts" and "Beetle Bailey." Others need their dose of "Garfield" and "Marmaduke." Then there is "Dilbert," which appeals to just about anyone who has ever worked for a living.

Last Sunday, Dilbert and his fellow corporate drones were being force-fed a presentation by their company's director of marketing. It went like this, with slide-show accompaniment:

"We spent our entire marketing budget buying a racehorse." Click. "We named the horse after our flagship product because they're both fast. Get it?" Click. "Unfortunately we didn't have enough budget for a top Thoroughbred." Click. "Our horse broke its leg walking to the starting gate, so we shot it." Click. "Next year we plan to sponsor a sailboat." Click. "Anyway . . . your lunch today is brought to you by the marketing department. Enjoy!"

"Hey," exclaims a worker in the final panel, "my roast beef sandwich has a piece of lead in it."

Whether or not anyone finds this amusing is not the issue. Humor is a slippery beast, and one man's groan is another man's belly laugh. What is significant, however, is the perception of horse racing as nothing more than a sick joke with two beats - they shoot horses, then they eat them.

Fortunately, the days of euthanization by gunfire are over. And while horses are not considered a food source in the U.S., there are states that continue to harbor commercial slaughterhouses and allow the exportation of horsemeat. Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," got it only half wrong.

Still, horse racing needs to worry about the perception. Most horse racing organizations have backed a federal bill that would ban horse slaughter. Designated HR 857, the bill currently is being considered by the Committee on Trade of the U.S. House of Representatives. Its progress can be tracked at www.clerk.house.org, which also lists the names of the 191 bill co-sponsors. If your congressman is not among them, find out why.

For horse racing to be tarred with the brush of the slaughter industry is a tough public relations stain to remove. But at least the end is in sight. On the other hand, horse racing seems to be going out of its way to become one with the casino business, for better or worse.

Red flags were raised from the beginning of the racetrack-casino era, warning that the public and legislators might not look as kindly upon racing if it turned itself into a casino game. A recent sampling of North American newspaper editorials should give racing leaders pause.

First, the good spin. The Minnesota Daily - the University of Minnesota's student newspaper - is in full support of Canterbury Park getting a full-blown casino to accompany its racing product.

"The revenue that the racino would generate would help alleviate some of the state's budget woes - to the tune of an estimated $150 million in its first two years," the editorial read. "Some of the money would aid local governments, adding to revenue from parimutuel betting already in place at the track. The facility would also provide more than 1,400 new jobs for Minnesotans."

But in the state of Washington, where legal gambling is beginning to mushroom, the editorial position of The Olympian lumps horse racing into what it sees as an alarming growth rate:

"How much legalized gambling is too much" wondered the editorial. "Apparently, no one in state government has given that question much thought. The state continues to expand gambling opportunities on a piecemeal basis with little thought to the long-term ramifications.

"Now Gov. [Gary] Locke, who has been reluctant to expand gambling opportunities, has Senate Bill 6481 on his desk. The bill allows online wagering on horse races and eases limits on offsite betting and on the simulcasts of horse races in other locations. Locke should ask himself: How much gambling is too much, and what are the societal costs of expanding gambling in Washington state? Then he should veto the bill."

Tough words, and sour music to the ears of those in the Washington horse industry who are hoping Locke signs the bill. But for the coldest possible slap, it was the Montreal Gazette that delivered a harsh message to racing in an editorial regarding the proposed sale of Quebec province tracks, led by Blue Bonnets, to Magna Entertainment Corp. MEC wants to create an "integrated racing and gaming experience" for Quebecers who already have both racing and gaming.

"Blue Bonnets, with 200 [video lottery terminals], is already the largest centre in the province for these machines other than the three public casinos," stated the Gazette. "If these do not keep the track solvent, how many will? There is no sense in trying to shore up what ought to be a purely self-financing industry."

While the quaint notion of "self-financing" still holds some appeal, the real message is clear. Fair or not, a business is judged in part by its associations. If racetracks want to be casinos, then racing will be held to the casino model of public perception. And if racing does not go full speed to assure passage anti-slaughter legislation, then the sport must suffer a smear like "Dilbert" without a whimper of complaint.