06/26/2003 11:00PM

No place for monkey business

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Mark the day - June 14 - the day a cattle prod was discovered in the tack room of a Thoroughbred trainer at a state-licensed racetrack. Henceforth and forevermore, no piece of news emanating from the weird world of horse racing will have the power to shock the senses. The pun is unapologetically intended.

A cattle prod. Not a whip. Not a lip chain. Not a twitch, or any of the other conventional appliances used to control a recalcitrant Thoroughbred. It was a cattle prod - the device required to send animals to slaughter. Schutzstaffel death camp guards used to use cattle prods, only they didn't use them on cattle.

In its most common form, a cattle prod is a two-pronged wand, coming in a variety of lengths, with a power-pack handle that can transmit an electrical charge. The 22-inch High-Low Cattle Prod from Fi-Shock Inc. is 22 inches long with an 11,000 volt setting for "large, stubborn animals" and a 4,000-volt charge for "small, docile" animals. The fine folks at Hot Shot make the Power Mite, described as "the perfect hand-held prod for anyone doing close-in work." Leather holster is optional.

This is not the place for a animals rights rant. The cattle prod is one of the prices we pay for being a meat-eating culture. At some point the meat must be moved on the hoof. Cattle prods were designed to protect the handlers without doing serious damage to the meat. We must either live with it, or order a salad.

But for the cattle prod to find a home in the stable of Thoroughbred racehorses is positively medieval. No one would argue that even on their best days, Thoroughbreds can be large, stubborn animals. But electrical shock, as a training tool? Who ever heard of such a thing?

By now, Jack Robbins has heard of everything. As a racetrack veterinarian for more than 50 years, Robbins can attest to some truly outrageous behavior among so-called trainers. He had to admit, though, that he hadn't heard of the cattle prod option for quite some time.

"I suppose they'd use it to wake up a horse before they'd take him to the receiving barn," Robbins said, and you could almost hear him shaking his head. "Years and years ago some of the worst trainers would beat them with chains before they went over there, just to get them on their toes."

The point being that some horses, because of soreness or psychological reluctance, were provided with something to trigger their flight response as race time drew near. Good old days indeed.

"If a guy did that to a horse with a cattle prod," said veteran trainer Leonard Dorfman, "then all a jock would need is a sharp fingernail. But you sure don't hear about that lately, as much as you did years ago."

As a design statement, retro might work. But modern racing has enough of an image problem without the ugly practices of the past making a comeback. One need only review the furor over the imaginary battery story that tainted the post-Kentucky Derby celebration over Funny Cide. Clearly, there is a no-tolerance level for mixing electricity and Thoroughbreds. Or, at least, there should be.

The track where the prod was found was Canterbury Park, and the trainer in question was Troy Bethke. He was suspended 90 days, the maximum penalty available to the stewards. Bethke has appealed the suspension, and, according to his attorney, he will make the case that possession of said prod was not specifically forbidden by the rules of racing, and that in any case, it was not being used to affect the outcome of a parimutuel race. This might be the most entertaining defense since Bill Clinton asked his accusers to ponder the meaning of "is."

The fact that prods, buzzers, and batteries have been - and likely still are - a part of horse racing is a dirty little reality that no amount of "Seabiscuit" box office can cover. Good for those Canterbury stewards for lowering the boom.

"I've only found one good use for a battery in my lifetime," said Dorfman, who celebrated his 81st birthday this week.

"When I was a kid, working for a trainer at old Tanforan, a guy who moved in next to us had two monkeys," Dorfman recalled. "He gave one to the wife of the man I worked for.

"They tied the monkey up," Dorfman went on, "but if you were walking by with a horse, and you had something in your pocket - gum, cigarettes, anything - he'd jump down on you and grab it. If you'd grab at him he'd bite you, or slap at you with those sharp fingernails.

"I'd never handled a battery before," Dorfman said, "but my boss had one in a bag in the office. So I grabbed it one afternoon, while I was cooling out a horse who'd just raced, and when that monkey jumped down on me I hit him with it. You know what a hummingbird looks like? That's how fast he got out of there.

"You know, once in awhile that monkey would get loose," Dorfman added, "and the foreman would send us after him. They never could figure out why we could never seem to catch him whenever the monkey saw me coming."