11/08/2001 12:00AM

Newfangled rules days


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted that people were using the trauma of Sept. 11 as a handy excuse for behavior that would have been otherwise difficult to explain.

A woman secured a refund on concert tickets after insisting she was emotionally overwhelmed. She was actually vacationing in a national park.

Wells Fargo's mortgage division included a phone line prompt that somberly stated: "If you have been directly impacted by the events of Sept. 11, you may hit 1 now."

A Manhattan-based condom company received a product complaint in August and failed to reply to the customer until the end of September. Computer trouble, caused by the events of Sept. 11, was cited as the reason for the delay.

So, as I stare at the pile of recent rule changes and notifications from the California Horse Racing Board obscuring the top of my desk, I am tempted to pawn off my sloth on our collective tragedy. But no one would buy it. Besides, there are some juicy items buried in the pile. It's time to hang them out to dry:

* Most of the regulatory changes pertain to the advent of advanced account wagering, which will be legal in California beginning Jan. 1, 2002. This is an exhaustive process, as are most bureaucratic exercises, that required a thorough analysis of current betting regulations to allow the new form of gambling. Picture the Queen Mary being refitted as a B-52.

We shall take on faith that the legislative analysts have dotted and crossed all the i's and t's. And we leave it to the various groups who get a cut of the parimutuel pie to grab their share. What matters most is how the product will be presented to the potential customers in their homes. We pray for continuity.

For those prayers to be answered, such diverse entities as Magna Entertainment, Churchill Downs, Inc., Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and the California Association of Racing Fairs must agree on format and content. It can happen, as long as everyone understands one simple lesson: Nothing sours a consumer faster than a product that changes its packaging and shelf space every few months.

* Right now, every horse claimed must undergo a postrace test, no matter where it finished. During the course of a racing program, nine other horses are selected at random for testing. The rules also require every horse finishing second or third in a stakes with a purse of $40,000 or more be tested, in addition to the winner.

Apparently, the numbers are weighing down the system. A proposed rule change would eliminate the requirement that all claimed horses be tested. Stewards would have the discretion to choose as few as six or as many as nine random horses for testing. The stakes purse level for second and third-place finishers to be tested would be raised to $75,000.

If this is merely a move to save money, then California racing is getting short-changed once again. If, however, fewer tests means a more intense analysis of the remaining samples, then we could be getting someplace. It costs a lot of money to screen for new drugs crossing over into the racing market. And it makes sense to target the hard stuff rather than spending thousands to red flag excessive levels of bute.

* The shifting scale of morality is a fact of human history. Witches once were burned. Now they've got websites. Possession of marijuana went from a felony to a wink. Dancer's Image was disqualified from victory in the 1968 Kentucky Derby for the presence of a medication that flows through the veins of most every Thoroughbred today.

So what do we say to the California trainers who have been dragged through the prosecution mill over small levels of clenbuterol, now that the racing board is proposing a threshold level of 5.0 nanograms per milliliter of urine? We say tough luck, fellows. It was stone-cold illegal then. Too bad you were ahead of your time.

Threshold levels are a good idea for regulated therapeutics, and clenbuterol is still unpredictable enough in its withdrawal time that most responsible trainers won't risk its use very close to game day. Those who do deserve to get caught.

* Finally, the racing board has been grappling over the wording of regulations to allow advertising on silks, pants, and saddlecloths. The board voted to allow such advertising as long as it did not promote tobacco, weapons, pornography, or "products that are detrimental to the best inters of horse racing."

Nice try. Unfortunately, the Office of Administrative Law got hold of the issue and gave the racing board a lesson in modern legal semantics. Each of the banned elements was either insufficiently defined or ran smack into a conflicting federal regulation. Imagine you are a well-meaning commissioner and you get a note back from the OAL that reads:

"The OAL has reasoned that many common items might be used as weapons and that the term 'weapons' could apply to both legal and illegal weapons."

There was a worry that such a ban would be potentially inconsistent with constitutional protection of commercial speech, which must be a relief to a guy like Bruce Headley, who insists that the fighting cock emblazoned on the back of his silks is merely a chicken. Maybe Smith & Wesson will want to advertise.