12/04/2001 1:00AM

Lots of talk and even some action


TUCSON, Ariz. - This city is ringed by mountains on all four sides, none as noisy this week as the foothills of the Catalinas.

The chiefs of American racing are gathered high on the Catalina slopes for their annual get-together in one big fancy hotel - Loews Ventana Canyon - and the chattering is loud and incessant in its halls, meeting rooms, and watering holes.

This year at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing something big may spill down over the blood-red bougainvillea that beautify the entrance overlooking Tucson in the valley below. There is some very serious talk going on here, and it could change things in racing.

For the better.

The veterinarians are trying to come up with uniform rules so that horsemen will know where they stand in all jurisdictions. They are here to resolve their differences and come up with a workable plan that will please the trainers who guide the horses and at the same time instill confidence in those who watch them by having the animals race safely on courage and not on chemicals.

There are several ideas, but because there finally seems to be some determination to sort them out and hammer together a treaty, something significant may get done. Some may have to be left out - Kentucky still wants to do things its own way - but it seems possible that something positive and beneficial will come of all of this, for horsemen, horses, and the public. It is high time.

The racing commissioners are here too, but it appears it may be too much to hope that the tortured travesty of two sets of them, each marching to its own drummer, will disappear.

Lonny Powell, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, and Frank Lamb, executive director of the rival North American Pari-Mutuel Regulators Association, are longtime friends, having worked together on starting crews in their callow youth.

While that bond alone cannot heal the wounds of disunity, one would hope it might contribute to greater cooperation and common purpose. It has not. Powell has held out an olive branch, but NAPRA shows no inclination to reach for it. That's terrible for racing.

Two unshared commission databases are one too many, as are two organizations that control the destinies of racing. Common sense dictates that these two should strive mightily to get together in every way possible. Like a lot of family quarrels, they may have forgotten what they started fighting about in the first place.

It has become traditional in recent years for the Symposium to serve as a setting for meetings of individual racing groups, and this year that trend is more pronounced than ever. Satellite meetings are scattered all over the place, but the overwhelming numerical presence of one group is evident at every turn. Whether in restaurants or rest rooms or hallways or meeting rooms, the nametags bearing MEC are omnipresent.

There are no less than 54 representatives of Magna Entertainment Corporation's far-flung empire registered, a remarkable turnout for an organization that didn't exist three years ago.

The spread of Magna is ubiquitous, and its titles a dazzling array of organizational diversity. They range from lofty posts like Jim McAlpine's title of president and CEO and Don Amos's executive vice president, through a maze of lesser positions like national director of horsemen's relations, director of print and graphics, director of regulatory affairs, corporate counsel, director of simulcasting, vice president of new media initiatives, director of player rewards, director of information technology, and national racing office director, to numerous other untitled links in the vast chain. If there is any doubt as to who dominates the American racing scene today, it is dispelled with a glance at the roster of attendees.

There are, to be sure, other powerful corporate presences on hand. Woodbine Entertainment Group has a big delegation here, and Churchill Downs is here in full strength. Tomorrow NTRA takes center stage.

And then, for mystery, there is the new cloak-and-dagger Jockey's Guild, emerging from shadowy darkness into the bright light of Arizona sunshine under its secluded leader L. Wayne Gertmenian and a retinue of his followers, including director Chris McCarron, the man responsible for the Guild's transformation into a near secret society.

This should add spice to the mix, but the real yeast will be what accord emerges on medication. The Symposium will rise or fall on this issue, above all others.