04/15/2005 12:00AM

The message must be clear

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NEW YORK - About a decade ago, a trainer with a first-time starter in a maiden race at Belmont Park was interviewed on the track's simulcast television show about her chances. The poor filly, sighed the Hall of Fame horseman, had shown no ability in the mornings and was probably destined to become a riding pet for his children.

As any grizzled horseplayer can guess, the filly won by approximately the length of the stretch. The track stewards showed no interest in the matter and took no action.

If lying were always a criminal offense, the nation's jails would overflow, and its legislatures and advertising agencies would be empty. But it's one thing to say that tax cuts for the rich are designed to help the poor or that drinking a particular brand of beer will win you the affection of supermodels, and quite another to provide false information to participants in a government-regulated financial transaction.

The trainer who lied about his first-time starter should have been sanctioned. So, too, should Sweet Catomine's connections, who willfully and repeatedly misrepresented her health, her whereabouts, and even her identity in the week leading up to the Santa Anita Derby April 9. Something well short of the electric chair seems appropriate, given that their actions appear to have been driven entirely by pride and ego rather than larceny, but it is time for racing to send a message that breaking the rules, and showing outright contempt for the people who fund horse racing through their betting dollars, is simply not acceptable.

The California Horse Racing Board has acted with proper and admirable speed, completing an investigation and filing charges against the filly's owner, Marty Wygod, within 48 hours of her fifth-place finish as the even-money favorite. The board found that the filly had been signed out of the stable area in the middle of the night under a false name and destination and had spent the next day being secretly treated at a clinic. Meanwhile, her camp claimed in a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call Tuesday, at a Santa Anita press breakfast Wednesday, and to reporters and track publicists throughout the week, that she was doing splendidly and had jogged well over the track on the Tuesday morning she was not even on the grounds.

It all began to unravel when Wygod took it upon himself to come to the press box uninvited after the race and make excuses for his beloved filly. In the course of the week, he revealed, she had bled in a workout and gone into heat. Asked why none of this had been disclosed during the week, Wygod gave a succession of conflicting and troubling answers: He hadn't wanted to say anything because the track had focused its publicity for the race on Sweet Catomine; no one had asked him directly; he had told part of the true story to a Sports Illustrated reporter, but only on the condition that it not be published until after the race. By Tuesday, when Wygod denied the board's charges against him, it was somehow all the van driver's fault for signing her out as a "pony" headed for a "farm."

No one is suggesting that Wygod acted out of anything but a misguided sense of propriety and an unrealistic opinion of his horse's ability. Sweet Catomine might well have run the same race without any of the mishaps. The owner had a bad case of Derby Fever, not a fistful of tickets on an eight-horse trifecta box omitting the favorite. He thought he was somehow doing the track and the sport a favor by pretending his filly was fine. Instead, he dealt racing a black eye on a rare day when the rest of the world was watching.

Here is what Tim Sullivan, a general sports columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, told his readers about horse racing the day after the Santa Anita Derby: "The sport of kings is ruled for the most part by anarchy. Its currency is inside information. Its regulation, too often, consists of winks and nods. If it weren't already fading toward the fringes of the sports world, it would fairly scream for congressional scrutiny. It is an outrage."

This in the hometown paper of Del Mar, where Wygod sits on the board of directors.

This story is not unique. It became public only because it was a prominent horse in a prominent race, and because Wygod felt obliged to come to the press box to excuse his filly's performance. Some racehorses always have and always will go to the post with undisclosed ailments that their handlers hope they can overcome. You can take 1-5 that someone in this year's Kentucky Derby will run despite a malady we will only hear about after the race, if ever.

Hoping for some sort of full disclosure of every horse's up-to-the-minute veterinary status is an impossible dream. That doesn't mean that egregious cases of misrepresentation and deception can or should be tolerated.