06/19/2005 11:00PM

Guts, persistence on display

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is the eternal question over which mankind has puzzled since climbing over each other to escape the primordial ooze, a question best posed by the anthropological comedian Billy Crystal in his "Saturday Night Live" role as Latin heartthrob Fernando Lamas:

"Qui es mas macho?"

First case, Thoroughbred jockeys or Formula One drivers. Qui es mas macho?

The driver plies his trade in a fire-retardant suit while surrounded by metal and fuel. The jockey, fully exposed, is "protected" by goggles, helmet, and a token impact vest. The Formula One driver competes open wheel to open wheel at speeds of more than 200 mph. The jockey must control his unpredictable beast at 35-40 mph with an archaic steering mechanism made from strips of leather and small pieces of stainless steel.

As it turns out, representatives from both groups of high-risk athletes turned in relatively rare displays of self-preservation in a pair of Sunday incidents that serve to remind both fans and management that there is more to a sporting event than merely betting handle and gate receipts.

At the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, 14 of the 20 drivers pulled off the track after the parade lap and refused to compete, leaving a crowd of 130,000 mystified by their behavior. As it turned out, the drivers - as instructed by their team managements - were protesting the failure to reach a compromise stemming from a controversy over tires that had been proven to be unsafe around the high-banked turns at the famed Indianapolis Speedway.

At about the same time, some 500 miles to the east, the jockeys competing at Delaware Park were becoming increasingly concerned over the condition of the dirt course. They rode five of the nine dirt races programmed, then voted to stand down from the final four in the interests of safety.

There was the usual smattering of bellicose comments, mostly from people who do not ride racehorses for a living. One of them came from John Wayne, executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission, who was quoted as saying that racing should resume soon because "the show must go on."

True enough, and no doubt the jockeys concur. But just as race-car drivers harbor reasonable expectations that their tires won't explode on the turns, jockeys can be forgiven if they prefer to go on stage and not fall through the floorboards. It's got nothing to do with macho.

Next up, qui es mas macho - Continental Red or Dixie Law?

Both are 9-year-old geldings, so perhaps "macho" is technically not part of the equation. But don't try telling that to these two old red-bearded pirates of the California seas.

By winning the 1 1/2-mile Quicken Tree Stakes for the second time at Hollywood Park on Saturday, Continental Red rang up his eighth win in 71 starts, backed by 29 seconds and thirds. He had lost 20 straight before the Quicken Tree (while earning more than $300,000 in that stretch), so here's a tip of the hat to trainer Tony Martinez and owners Wes and Sharon Fitzpatrick for knowing when not to quit.

Dixie Law, a hard-nosed claimer, is in the midst of a twilight comeback for Juan Garcia after missing most of 2004. A son of Santa Anita Handicap winner Martial Law, he has raced 49 times, winning 13 and finishing second or third in another 14 races. Last Friday night, ol' Dixie won his second straight under Felipe Martinez, who was there at the beginning - back in February of 1999 - when Dixie Law won for the first time.

Finally, qui es mas macho - Felipe Martinez or the plastic rail on the Hollywood Park turf course?

Martinez was on his way to victory aboard the 4-year-old Skip Away filly Marla Bay in an attractive allowance race last Saturday when she veered inward. Instead of merely bolting through the rail into the grassy infield, Marla Bay shattered the PVC piping into more than a dozen sharp pieces.

Martinez, a 40-year-old journeyman, landed in harm's way on the inside path of the racing strip. Marla Bay, though, had been well in front at the time of the incident, giving the trailing jockeys time to avoid the fallen rider. Martinez was shaken, but returned to action the following day.

In the end, it was Marla Bay who took the worst of it.

"It was a nightmare," said her trainer, Bill Morey, a 40-year veteran of the game. "I was sitting there wondering how far she'd win by, then I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

"She was cut on her chest, stifles, forelegs, pasterns - you name it," Morey added. "We got lucky as far as arteries were concerned, but a couple of those cuts were right down to the bone, so there would be a fear of infection."

After 15 starts in northern California, Marla Bay was on a career upswing with two narrow defeats in stakes company. Saturday's race was her first in Southern California, and she was turning in a dazzling performance before disaster struck.

Marla Bay is now being treated for her injuries at the Chino Valley Equine Hospital, east of Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, her future as a racehorse is uncertain. One thing is clear, though. To survive what she did last Saturday, Marla Bay is mas macho than anything else the sports world witnessed last weekend.