07/25/2005 11:00PM

Murky figures clouding the game

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The Balco drug scandal came to a screeching halt last week on the West Coast when its chief architect, Victor Conte, and two associates pleaded guilty to two of 42 charges, received modest punishment, and ended the chance of further testimony, further indictments, or further embarrassment for baseball and track and field.

It left huge unanswered questions for horse racing, however.

Who is the Victor Conte of horse racing?

Who are the Barry Bondses of our sport?

And, most important of all, who is the savior somewhere on a backstretch who holds the vial that - if delivered to the proper authorities - could unlock this mess? That's what happened in the Balco case two years ago when a track coach sent a used syringe containing an unknown substance to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and it led to the identification of the super-enhancer THG.

The Barry Bonds matter has a direct sequel in horse racing in America. The cast is intact, but unidentified.

The Bonds affair ended when guilty pleas to selling drugs to athletes were entered by Conte, the mastermind of the drug-distributing firm Balco; Greg Anderson, Bonds's personal trainer and friend since childhood; and James Valente, the vice president of Balco. Conte and Anderson also pleaded guilty to laundering steroid profits.

Under the deal struck with the feds, Conte, 55, will spend four months in jail and four months under house arrest.

Anderson will serve up to six months.

Valente gets probation.

Remi Korchemny, a track coach who also was charged and spent most of the trial reading a Russian detective paperback, according to the San Jose Mercury News, can continue reading it while he dickers with authorities over what he may or may not confess to doing.

And Barry Bonds gets to talk about his bad knee, and nothing more.

The Mercury News took a cynical view of all this, saying, "Somewhere this morning, Victor Conte Jr. must be having a quiet cup of coffee and suppressing a chortle. He didn't get away with murder. But he did get away with becoming more famous that he ever expected and cementing his career as a steroid guru forever - without having to do serious jail time or even cooperate in any further investigation."

The guilty-plea agreements mean that star athletes such as Bonds and Marion Jones will not have to testify about alleged drug use in a blockbuster trial.

"The moral of the story," U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan told the Mercury News, "is that cheating doesn't pay."

Who is he kidding?

There are Victor Contes out there in horse racing.

But so far, unfortunately and amazingly, there has been no one, as in the Balco case, to come forward with a vial, with the evidence, that could lead world-class scientists like Dr. Don Catlin of UCLA to discover what is being used. Investigators and regulators today have no idea how to find out, or what to do about it. They are battling arrogant insurgents who are bombing racing, and they are wandering in a fog as to how to fight them. Private training centers are spawning grounds for illegal drugs, safely beyond state regulators. The few who are caught use high-profile lawyers and are sent back to racing with wrist-slaps. State police labs are either unable or unwilling to identify what they find, and racing regulators are equally noncommunicative.

Meanwhile, the Victor Contes of horse racing continue their compounding and their trafficking.

The users continue on their merry way, often supported by owners who want to win at any cost.

The sport continues to decline, in confusion and delusion.

On top of all that, we now have vigilante capitalism in racing.

Last week, a secret group, interested in grabbing the New York Racing Association's license, had its lawyer, Donald Kinsella, a former federal prosecutor, ask the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn to prosecute NYRA "to the fullest extent of the law." His clients' identities are not being disclosed, but their hooded secrecy would indicate the franchise, and not some professed thirst for justice, is their basic motivation. We have reached the dangerous stage of secret societies, operating in covert darkness, seeking one of the most valuable assets in American horse racing.

We are sinking lower day by day, being smothered first by chemicals and now by mud.