11/23/2007 1:00AM

Horse for whodunit fans

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - The DaVinci Code? Hah. Boring twaddle when compared to the Medici Code.

Someday it might even make a movie, with Tom Hanks in the role of the beleaguered horse trainer, trying to sort through the maze of mysterious occurrences befalling the stable's marquee runner. Okay, so Hanks might need to do a little Bobby De Niro shapeshifting to play Darrell Vienna. But hey, does anyone really think Jesse James looked like Brad Pitt?

The $500,000 Hollywood Derby on Sunday has come up entertaining enough without the drama provided by Medici Code, a gritty British gelding owned by Bill and Donna Herrick. Among the 11 running in Sunday's 1 1/4-mile stakes can be found a genuine star (Nobiz Like Shobiz), a squad of solid soldiers (Wordly, Twilight Meteor, Warning Zone), and emerging talents (Daytona, Bold Hawk) who could easily steal the dance.

Medici Code nailed down his place among the West's top turf 3-year-olds with a Del Mar campaign that included a second in the restricted Oceanside Stakes and victories in the La Jolla Handicap and Del Mar Derby, both graded events, while ridden by veteran Martin Pedroza.

For the past two months, however, Medici Code has made the wrong kind of headlines. In late September, it was announced by the California Horse Racing Board that the horse tested positive for excess levels of the legal bronchodilator clenbuterol following both the Oceanside and the La Jolla. Then, in his only appearance since those accusations were made public, Medici Code journeyed to Hoosier Park for the Oct. 6 Indiana Derby and finished a baffling fifth, nearly a dozen lengths behind victorious Zanjero.

There are, of course, commonplace answers to all questions raised. Horses have been known to harbor trace levels of legal medications above established thresholds. The purse is forfeited, the trainer is fined, and everyone gets back to business, presumably more careful than before.

As far as strange news coming from Indiana, one need only turn the clock back a year to the controversial 2006 running of the derby, which was called a dead heat between New York invader Star Dabbler and the Midwesterner Cielo Gold. Allegations arose that the photo was misread, leading the owner of Star Dabbler, Barry Schwartz, to file an official protest with the Indiana Horse Racing Commission. However, the result stood.

The commission got another letter after this year's Indiana Derby, this time from the Herricks, who contend that Medici Code's poor performance could be traced to the starting gate.

"The assistant starter bit his ear," Darrell Vienna said, referring to the odd but apparently effective method of (hopefully) last resort used to calm dangerously restless horses in the gate.

"He's normally a very quiet horse," Vienna went on. "He doesn't need that kind of handling, and Martin told them so. When it happened, the horse got very upset. He was stomping after the race. He also had a very clear set of teeth marks in that ear.

"The commission said they viewed the tape and could see no evidence of it happening. What can you do? You just don't go back. What we do have is a picture of that ear. It looks like something they'd use on CSI."

The clenbuterol chapter of the Medici Code mystery may take a bit longer to unravel. Vienna, who has been an outspoken advocate of tougher prerace security and heightened drug testing, has been conducting his own investigation. He suspects the horse was tampered with, based initially on the contention that Medici Code received his last dose of clenbuterol prior to the Oceanside well outside the recommended withdrawal period, and that he received no clenbuterol at all prior to the Oceanside, or, for that matter, the Del Mar Derby. Medici Code tested clean after the derby.

"We knew there was an allegation after the first race and before the second," Vienna noted. "My first thought was that maybe he was a horse that retains, which I'd never heard of, but I suppose there was a chance. So we didn't give him any before the La Jolla at all. When they came back after the La Jolla with another one, then I knew something was wrong. When you don't give anything at all, there's no mistake to be made."

A hearing date on the two Medici Code positives has yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, Vienna has placed a number of video surveillance cameras in his barn - something the California Horse Racing Board says it can't afford to do with all stables - and the trainer can monitor activity from home.

What he has seen lately from Medici Code has him encouraged about the Hollywood Derby. He has been working steadily over the conventional sand of the training track at Santa Anita, rather than the main track, and his moves say he's ready.

"We'd love to win this one, and he's doing well," Vienna said. "But the big one for me was winning the Del Mar Derby. Even though it hadn't been made public, he had those tests hanging over his head, and I wanted him to get some vindication."