12/03/2001 12:00AM

Memo to board: Attend vet panels


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The annual symposium sponsored by the University of Arizona's Racetrack Industry Program was scheduled to begin Tuesday morning with a panel of veterinarians holding forth on the theme of "Separating Fact from Fiction." On Wednesday, the two-part morning session will address "The Reality of Perception."

Then, on Thursday night, the farewell banquet will be entertained by cowboy poet Baxter Black, who calls his weekly column in the Amarillo Globe-News "On the Edge of Common Sense."

There seems to be a pattern.

A conference that deals with fact, fiction, reality, and perception and tops it off with a dose of common sense would seem to be on the right track. In fact, they maybe should have put Black on the panels with such veterinary research heavyweights as Wayne McIlwraith, Rick Sams, Jerry Black, and Cynthia Kollias-Baker, along with such noted horsemen as Tom Amoss, Tom Bachman, and Richard Mandella.

Black is, after all, a qualified large animal D.V.M. who discovered there was a buck to be made on the printed and spoken word - as long as those words are entertaining. His definition of a cowboy, for instance, describes "someone who can replace a uterine prolapse in a range cow in a three-section pasture with nothing but a horse and a rope."

Chances are the topic of bovine reproduction won't come up during the vet panels. Their mandate will be to lead the symposium audience through the thorny patches of current racing medication rules, and to suggest ways that those rules need to be applied to reflect the dramatic advances in scientific detection. They will deal with such topics as threshold levels affecting performance, the concept of zero tolerance, and the reality of environmental contamination.

Hopefully, there will be members of the California Horse Racing Board and its staff in attendance, paying close attention. No other major jurisdiction has suffered more embarrassment, sustained more criticism, or spent more of the public's money in defense of faulty execution of its own clear rules. If you don't think so, just ask Richard Mandella, or Jesse Mendoza, To its credit, the California Horse Racing Board does not discriminate.

Mandella is in the Hall of Fame. Mendoza trains a handful of horses. When Mandella was among the trainers accused of administering the depressant scopolamine to horses eight years ago, he spent more than $50,000 in an effort to prove that the positive tests traced to the presence of jimsonweed - a source of scopolamine - found in stall bedding. A superior court judge took one look at Mandella's mountain of evidence and threw out the state's case.

Mendoza was among four California trainers accused last year of having horses test positive for miniscule levels of morphine in post-race urine samples. Mendoza does not have Mandella's resources to mount a defense, which is why attorney Steve Schwartz has taken the case pro bono. Schwartz, who is also licensed as an owner and a trainer, figures it's a good investment. It could happen to anybody.

"By a preponderance of the evidence, to a reasonable degree of veterinary medical certainty, everybody who testified said it was a contamination," Schwartz said. "And there was no opposing evidence."

Schwartz also subpoenaed the immuno-assay screening data from California's official Truesdail Laboratories for a two-month period that included the positive morphine tests linked to Mendoza, as well as to Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel.

"In that period of time, we found roughly 16 'hits' for morphine, in addition to the four that were called positives by the racing board," Schwartz said. "Three of them occurred on the same day that Baffert's positive came up."

Baffert has since succeeded in getting a federal court to order the racing board to drop his accusation, based on the destruction of blood sample evidence.

According to testimony from a Truesdail representative, the other 16 hits for morphine could not be confirmed through further testing and therefore could not be taken to the accusal stage.

That makes sense, but it also indicates that there are already in place thresholds of proof within the testing procedures. Those thresholds, however, satisfy some narrowly defined chemical standard, without regard as to origin, whether it be environmental contamination, manufacturer error, mislabeling, or intentional administration.

Therein lies Mandella's continued frustration. Seven years after the scopolamine charges were dropped, he still sees a California Horse Racing Board that shoots first and asks questions later.

"You would think they would have been grateful that we were able to trace those tests to a potentially dangerous weed in the fields where the hay was harvested," he said. "But no. It was as if they didn't want to know. And that's what was so wrong. Don't be accusing someone unless you know all the answers first.

"I'd heard it before but I don't think I really appreciated it until it happened to me," Mandella added. "I'd rather see three guilty men go free than one innocent man hanged."

Racing would be wise to consider such a civilized notion.