12/17/2003 1:00AM

If you care about horses . . .

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Having trouble with that big holiday dinner menu? Can't decide if you should serve a traditional turkey, a festive ham, or a sumptuous Christmas goose? Perhaps it's time for a change, a new twist on the main course that is sure to have the holiday guests ooohing and ahhhing with wonder and delight.

Try horse meat.

Wait, wait! Before you gag and turn the page consider this. There are already more than 40,000 horses slaughtered in the United States each year at the two existing slaughterhouses in Texas. In the Illinois town of DeKalb, 60 miles west of Chicago, there is another slaughterhouse poised to open for business.

Even the American Association of Equine Practitioners - veterinarians sworn to make life better for horses - has taken the position that "the slaughter of unwanted horses at processing facilities is currently a necessary aspect of the equine industry in order to provide a humane alternative to allowing a horse to continue a life of discomfort or pain and possibly inadequate care or abandonment." If the AAEP says so, the slaughter of horses for human consumption can't be all bad.

"I have a dream, brothers and sisters, to one day eat a Kentucky Derby winner," wrote Charles V. Osterberg in his column for The Onion, a news parody Internet site that sometimes brushes painfully close to the truth.

The fervent Mr. Osterberg has company, you see. How can millions of Japanese, French, Swiss, Italians, Belgians, and French-Canadians be so terribly wrong? Their taste for horse meat is trotted out with regularity, if only to underline the wide array of cultural differences in this wild and wacky world.

Granted, a quick surf of a few websites almost makes the mouth water. At Foodreference.com, horse meat is described as "lean, protein-rich, finely textured, blood-red and firm." Guide Culinaire recommends herbs and spices to "complement the delicate flavour of horse meat, especially tarragon, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, chervil, parsley, mustard, ground pepper, and, of course, garlic."

Go ahead, tell me this 400-year-old recipe for German wild horse - from the Foundation for Cultural Culinary Acceptance - doesn't sound lip-smacking good:

"You can prepare the meat from a wild horse in a black pepper sauce, and if you want to have the meat roasted, salt it well, for it is a sweet meat. When it is well cooked pull it onto a board and let it become cold. Make a good Hungarian pepper sauce from the blood of a chicken that is slightly sour (the sauce, not the chicken), and put the meat therein until it becomes good and mellow."

Then there is everyone's favorite - horse meat sushi. Known as basashi, it is considered a Japanese delicacy, thinly sliced and served on its own as sashimi or with rice in the traditional sushi style. The Foundation for Cultural Culinary Acceptance warns that "preparing this dish is problematic because it is often difficult to obtain extremely fresh horse meat outside of Japan." Unless you happen to live near one of those Texas slaughterhouses. Then you're in luck.

Anti-slaughter proponents are not unreasonable. For years, they have agreed to stipulate that there are cultures in which horses are considered a human food source. Fine. Let them eat Ruffian. Their point is that American laws should reflect American cultural standards, and because Americans do not eat their horses, there should be no industry in America profiting from such practices.

The issue is emotional, but it is also becoming marginal. Opponents of the U.S. horse meat industry - the sale, transport, slaughter, and exportation - have succeeded in reducing horse slaughter dramatically through legislation over the past decade. A federal bill to ban slaughter once and for all in the U.S. (HR 857) currently is working its way through the House of Representatives, and deserves the unequivocal support of all Thoroughbred racing organizations.

The AAEP has yet to fully back the legislation. The veterinarians' group wants assurances that illegal transport of horses for slaughter to such foreign countries as Canada and Mexico is controlled. Until then, the AAEP contends that "euthanasia at a processing facility is a humane alternative to a life of suffering, inadequate care, and possibly abandonment."

Then along comes the Belgian-based company food company Cavel International and its plan to rebuild the DeKalb slaughterhouse - sorry, processing facility - which was destroyed by fire in early 2002. A bill to ban horse slaughter has stalled in the Illinois Legislature, but that has not stopped proponents of the measure from keeping on the pressure.

The National Horse Protective Coalition, which includes a number of people from the Chicago-area Thoroughbred community, will hold a fund-raiser at the After the Races pub near Hawthorne Race Course on Saturday night in support of the Illinois anti-slaughter bill. Organizers note that anyone who can't attend may still donate to the cause through the office of the horsemen's bookkeeper at Hawthorne. As Christmas parties go, this one deserves to be at the top of the list.