01/25/2002 12:00AM

Learning to brace for impact

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Friday is supposed to be casual day, half day, thank-God-its-almost-Saturday, and it usually is. Except for this past Friday at Del Mar, where Joe Harper, the track's president, was running a board meeting with an agenda that included the election of a new chairman to replace John Mabee, the recent death of board member Stewart Bowie, the acknowledgment of Dan Smith's retirement after 25 years as director of marketing, and a review of Thursday's racing board decision to license TVG and Magna Entertainment to conduct advance deposit wagering.

Oh, yeah. And his arm hurt, too.

As head of California's most successful racing enterprise, Harper exudes good health and high spirits whenever he walks into a room. And why not? Del Mar is the only remaining West Coast track not run by a public company. Its ability to concentrate on local markets and efficient profitability is not hamstrung by the need to answer to an absentee owner and a pool of faceless stockholders.

Harper also fancies himself a decent hand with a horse, going back to a youth spent at the Middle Ranch owned by his mother, Cecelia deMille Harper, and a lifetime of back country treks throughout the Southwest. Which is why even he was mad at himself for saying yes to a friend who asked him to try out an inexperienced 3-year-old during a ride in the San Rafael Valley of southern Arizona last November.

"You think I'd have enough brains to say, 'No thanks,' " Harper said Friday morning as he wrapped up preparations for his board meeting.

"I'd checked him out earlier, and he was fine. A little pussycat. I pushed him and pulled on him and saddled him and unsaddled him. I got on him and he was great. Then I got about 200 yards in the picket line, and he just went berserk.

"Bill Baffert was next to me" - wouldn't you know it . . . there had to be a Baffert involved - "and he reached for the headstall. I was grateful at first, but when he got hold of the headstall, the horse went even crazier. I yelled, 'Let him go. I got him!' Both of us were wrong."

The horse went straight up and began to tip over backwards. Harper, tied on like a good broncbuster, looked over his shoulder on the way down and beheld a sight that was of no comfort at all.

"It was the paramedic, getting out of his truck, getting his bag, heading my way," Harper said. "All in slow motion."

The good news is that there were no immediate promotions on the executive ladder at Del Mar. The bad news, however, was quickly apparent. Harper's right shoulder absorbed the force of his fall, popping all of the rotator cuffs off the bone, which meant the only thing keeping his arm attached to the rest of his body was a few layers of denim, skin, and tattered soft tissue.

It took a month for the swelling to subside enough to operate. Harper's shoulder needed pins and string and four hours of surgery. His arm was then padded and slung for another seven weeks as the healing commenced. It should also be noted that Harper is right-handed, which has given him plenty of incentive to recover full use of the arm.

"There are certain goals I'm going for," he said. "It all gets down to the basics."

The Harper clan, run by Joe's wife, Barbara, is full of daughters, daughters' husbands, and grandchildren. Once the initial shock of Harper's self-inflicted injury subsided, sympathy began to dry up.

"The highlight of the Christmas season for the grandkids was to come over and watch grandpa try to get dressed," Harper said.

Although the rehab has been painful, Harper hopes to be back at full strength by the time Del Mar rolls around in July. He'll need to be, given the potential challenges of California's entry into the world of telephone and Internet betting.

"We're still trying to figure out what the impact will be," Harper said. "When intertrack wagering came around," he said of betting at Santa Anita and Hollywood during Del Mar, "we thought we'd be down 25 percent in attendance and 30 percent in handle ontrack. We were just about right.

"My gut feeling is that there won't be that much of an impact," he went on. "You can still come out to Del Mar and make a bet on your phone. Hopefully, they'll be calling TVG and not Xpressbet."

The large TVG network has advance wagering contracts with Del Mar, along with Hollywood Park, the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and the California fair circuit. Magna's Xpressbet service is handling the action on Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate, in addition to the other Magna tracks around the country. The competition will be intense, and Harper has an unenviable vantage point. In addition to his day job at Del Mar, he also sits on the Magna Entertainment board of directors. He says it's not a problem.

"I told everyone at Magna, from the beginning, that my allegiance is always with Del Mar," Harper said. "If anything ever comes up that makes me choose, I'm prepared to abstain, leave the room, or leave the board. But there was a certain degree of competition even before this.

"The one who will do the most good for racing," Harper added, "will be the one who presents the product to the non-racegoing public in a way that might intrigue them."