01/01/2002 1:00AM

Latest problem a real stinker

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TUCSON, Ariz. - It may not be politically correct or politely acceptable to start off a new year talking about horse manure, but given the fact that it is racing's latest crisis, it may be necessary.

This is not levity; horse manure could be lethal to some racetracks, and at the very least it could be devastatingly expensive.

The smelly stuff has been a major track management problem and expense in recent years, since mushroom farmers, who once paid to haul it away, now either scorn the tracks altogether or get compensated richly for removing it. Baseball's late, great promoter Bill Veeck discovered the magnitude of the problem three decades ago when he took over Suffolk Downs, and he used it for the title of a book he wrote called "Thirty Tons a Day."

But now the United States government is involved, deeply and seriously, and the American Horse Council in Washington has been spending long days and nights worrying about the issue and compiling data and a defense against a costly threat.

You may not have heard of CAFO, but you will, particularly if you run a racetrack.

It stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned about them in formulating and revising rules and regulations under the Clean Water Act.

Most people would think of CAFOs as feed lots, but the government thinks some racetracks fall under the provisions of CAFO, and should be subject to their rigid provisions for permits. The provisions are arcane and tough and expensive, and the issue is complex.

For starters, the EPA takes the stance that a racehorse is not one horse, but two animals. The 30-year-old regulations governing animal feedlots include language about animal units, or AU, and because of the high nutrients and extra feed given race horses the government considers each racehorse equal to two cattle for purposes of the Clean Water Act. Since areas that "confine" more than 500 animals are subject to rigorous rules, and since one racehorse is considered two animals by the government, most racetracks face the danger of being considered concentrated animal feeding operations and falling under the very rugged rules regulating disposal of manure and wastewater under the Clean Water Act. The Horse Council is attempting to provide scientific evidence that the concept of a racehorse being counted as two animal units is erroneous, and hopes to prevent racetracks from being considered in the same category as animal feeding lots.

Racing's track industry groups - the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, Harness Tracks of America, and American Quarter Horse Racing Association - have been providing data to the American Horse Council to help make racing's case, and outside counsel and experts have been enlisted in the effort.

The problem is not merely academic. It is real and costly, as Magna Entertainment has discovered with its operations at Santa Anita, where hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to correct drainage problems, and in Oregon, where the EPA acknowledges that Magna has done a terrific job cleaning up Portland Meadows but still is rattling a million-dollar lawsuit over environmental contamination.

The EPA has been listening to the Horse Council, and is trying to evaluate how the nutrient content of the manure of racehorses on specialized diets compares with that of non-racing horses with average diets. It also is considering the number of tracks and the number of horses "confined" at them, and for how long.

There are few people in racing today, track operators or breeders or lawyers, who ever thought they would encounter the problem of proving that the biochemical oxygen demand and phosphorus and nitrogen content of manure from a 1,000 pound racehorse is similar to that of a 1,000 pound beef cow. Unfortunately, the fiscal welfare of tracks may hinge on that difficult and unpleasant task.

Fortunately for racing there is an American Horse Council available to tackle the mission. Its president, James "Jay" Hickey, is a skilled Washington lawyer. No one at Notre Dame or at Georgetown Law ever told him he would wind up hip deep in horse manure, but he is there and battling.

If the AHC wins this one, the racing industry will owe it another huge debt, and will have to design an appropriate plaque. Anyone want to tackle that one?