05/15/2007 11:00PM

Jockey insurance not a federal case

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TUCSON, Ariz. - A bad idea and a barroom brawl roil the turbulent waters of horse racing these days. The first is dangerous, the second disgraceful.

Bad ideas do not improve with age, and a bill reintroduced in Congress - HR 2175, the Jockeys Insurance Fairness Act - is no better now than it was when first introduced in the last session. It may be fair for jockeys, but it is unfair for the rest of racing.

The bill is the current pet project of Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, and Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat. Its bipartisan sponsorship and good intentions do nothing to nullify its potential for harm.

Sympathy for the daily dangers jockeys face is understandable and shared, and wanting to improve their health and welfare plans is a worthy cause.

To do so by ripping open the delicate fabric of cooperation that the rest of racing laboriously and painfully knitted together almost three decades ago is not the right way to accomplish those goals.

The Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 may not be a sacred scroll, but it comes close in racing. It was a remarkable example of cooperation when it was drafted by racing executives and passed by Congress 29 years ago, and it remains one of racing's most valuable tools for the problems of today. Most recently, it saved racing from the ban on Internet gaming.

Congressmen Whitfield and Stupak say they do not intend to disrupt the balance of that legislation, but both know that once a law is torn open and exposed to amendment, the dangers of infection lie beyond their control or intentions.

This is not a matter for Washington to mandate. It is one for racing to negotiate. The jockeys need better health and accident protection, but they should not expect their racing colleagues to rush to their support while they huddle under the umbrella of federal intervention. The jocks have able leadership now, and that leadership, not Congress, should represent them.

While this threat reappears on the muddy banks of the Potomac, the weirdness of Wonderland continues in California. As in Washington, politics - in this case petty politics and wounded pride - have jolted a major industry. At the heart of the disruption is state Sen. Leland Yee, carrying the tattered banner of Bay Meadows.

That track is operated with real estate development, not racing, as its primary concern. Management has announced it will be developed. When, not if, is the issue.

The Bay Meadows racing strip has proved a dangerous place for horses. Twenty-five of them ended their careers in breakdowns at the last meeting, according to the California Horse Racing Board. Concerned by that danger, the board refused by a 4-2 vote to give Bay Meadows a requested waiver from its rule requiring major parimutuel tracks to install hugely expensive synthetic surfaces.

Bay Meadows found a powerful ally in Leland Yee. Already unhappy because the racing board's chairman, Richard Shapiro, did not seek consultation in his fiefdom, Yee called for Shapiro's head.

Then, showing his full wrath and power, Yee asked a fellow state senator, Mike Machado, who chairs the Budget Review Subcommittee, to strip the racing board of its $10.8 million funding. Machado complied. A Yee spokesman called this "a leadership call," intriguing because the racing board under Shapiro has shown leadership that has earned it new nationwide respect. The appointment of Dr. Rick Arthur as the board's chief medical officer, with extremely broad powers, overturned a stance of denial that had long stained California racing.

The latest chapter in this bizarre battle involves criticism of a questionable call by Shapiro to use trainer-lawyer Darrell Vienna, who has trained Shapiro-owned horses, as a consultant to the board.

There was another fascinating development in racing, this one from Frank Stronach, master of fascination and the vast racing universe that stretches from Santa Anita to Gulfstream Park, with multiple stops between.

Speaking as chairman of Magna International, parent of the track-owning Magna Entertainment Corp., Stronach announced a $1.54 billion infusion into MI from a new partner, Oleg Deripaska, who rules a giant enterprise known as Russian Machine. Stronach sees the rise of a vast middle class in Russia, with an explosion in demand for cars, all carrying Stronach-made parts. Stronach said he plans to build as many as 300 auto parts plants in Russia, and in return for the rubles from Deripaska he is providing Russian Machine with six veto-bearing seats on MI's new 14-man board of directors. That board is "rethinking" its relationship with Magna Entertainment and its tracks, with options including a spinoff.

Stronach, chairman of both Magna companies, says he might let it happen "under the right circumstances."

This one could be interesting, comrade.