07/16/2002 12:00AM

New episode of Perils of Maline

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TUSCAN, Ariz. - When I was a kid in the hard coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania, there was a narrow little street - really not much more than an alley - that ran off the main drag of my hometown.

It had two attractions. One was a bookie joint on the second floor of a ramshackle building and, diagonally across the street, the Hippodrome theater.

My dad was an occasional patron of the bookie joint and took me along for education, and it was there - following one losing day - that he first told me that you could always tell a confirmed horseplayer, because he would have the Daily Racing Form sticking out of one back pocket and his rear end sticking out of the other.

It also was there that the crackling, re-created calls of results from tracks around the country fascinated me so much that later I became a caller of real races at tracks in Chicago, Detroit, and Boston.

The Hippodrome theater, across the street from the bookie joint, was a different matter. It offered high drama for a quarter each Saturday afternoon. The westerns in those days were serialized, and just as the hero was tied to the stake by Indians, or was knocked off the edge of a high cliff with a river and rocks far below, or was charged by a herd of wild-eyed buffalo, the screen would go blank and "To be continued" flashed, postponing the ultimate rescue for another week.

I thought of the Hippodrome last week with the latest chapter in that exciting serial from Kentucky.

This installment carried the news that Alex Harthill had resigned as president of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. Dr. Harthill has flirted with controversy with determination and resolve during much of his career, and I wondered what dire events could have led him to jump from his post as head of the Bluegrass HBPA.

Harthill was upset, it turns out, over the dispute about the association's former and current executive director, Marty Maline, and two fellow Kentucky HBPA officials who did business with the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma. Maline had been deposed briefly and quick reinstated, and like the old Hippodrome dramas, the Maline chapter will be continued with another episode this week.

The Harthill crisis came over whether the Kentucky HBPA should continue investigating what Maline and former KHBPA president Rick Hiles and former counsel Don Sturgill had been doing in private simulcast dealings with a group called Choctaw Racing Services. The trio was conducting business with the Choctaw's under the impressive corporate title of Century Consultants, and Harthill had ordered an investigation to determine if they had violated any association rules when they received $125,000 for consulting services.

Dr. Harthill thought the Kentucky HBPA should keep digging until it got to the bottom of the affair.

His members, or at least his board of directors, thought differently. They returned Maline to his job as executive director and seemed satisfied that the Century enterprise was okay, or at least they felt the investigation should be shut down and the hubbub silenced.

Harthill disagreed, so strongly that he quit. So did interim counsel Joseph Cohen, who had been hired following Sturgill's resignation.

But all that was last week's episode.

The next installment will play out this week. John Roark, the national president of the HBPA, seeks additional answers.

The Kentucky HBPA may feel that enough has been said about the incident, but it seems that more may be said in Vancouver when the national HBPA meets there later this week. A special HBPA task force, including an independent Lexington lawyer assigned to the matter, has been conducting its own investigation of the Choctaw affair, and will report.

Presumably there will be answers to interesting questions.

What signals were being exchanged between the men from the Bluegrass and the Native Americans in Oklahoma?

What did the Kentuckians provide to get $125,000 in return?

Will help arrive in time to save them?

Like the old days at the Hippodrome, I can hardly wait for the next installment.