05/04/2004 12:00AM

Not the headlines you want to see


TUCSON, Ariz. - Many who love horse racing, like many who love opera, ballet, golf, or Jack Russell terriers, can't understand why everyone else doesn't share their passion.

Last week, in the midst of Kentucky Derby hoopla, two major American newspapers gave ammunition to those who aren't racing fans.

On successive days just before America's biggest race, the New York Times ran major front sports page stories on medication and whipping, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer chipped in with one on Salix (commonly known as Lasix).

Joe Drape and Bob Roberts, who wrote the medication stories, are not alarmists. Neither is Bill Finley, who did the whipping piece. All three are skilled racing writers, and those who run racing should pay heed to what they wrote just days before America's greatest horse race.

Drape's story got a great lead-in, a two-column page 1 color picture of Smarty Jones with the prescient caption, "His Name is Smarty Jones and He Might Just Win the Derby," and lines noting that "he has won six straight races on his way to Louisville. Nevertheless, he will be taking an anti-bleeding drug in the Derby."

The big headline on the sports page blared, "A Derby Drug for Every Horse but One," and early in the story Drape asked, "So does this chestnut colt with the unusual name need a chemical edge to hit the finish line first? His trainer, John Servis, does not think so, but he is not taking any chances." Drape added that Servis is giving him Salix "even though the colt has shown no previous signs of pulmonary hemorrhaging."

This, of course, is in line with American racing's new credo, give it to them whether they need it or not.

Drape went on to write, and a huge picture next to the story underlined the text, that trainer Patrick Biancone said Lion Heart had never raced on Salix and was not about to in the Derby. Biancone made a statement that should be engraved in silver and almost was when Lion Heart set the pace and came up just a trifle short in the Derby, running clean.

"What you don't need, you don't need," said Biancone, and added, in his Gallic wisdom, "I take an aspirin when I have a headache. I don't take aspirin when I do not feel any pain. As long as my horse doesn't bleed, he doesn't need anything. I believe I am being logical."

The argument could be made, of course, and probably will be, that Lion Heart might have won with Salix. The argument also could be made that Smarty Jones won because of it, and not because of his natural talent, which would be a sad commentary on what may turn out to be an exceptional horse.

Bob Roberts's widely read column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer began, "Better racing through chemistry? Ask the majority of horsemen, and the answer is a resounding 'yes.' Ask trainer Patrick Biancone, and he'll tell you that if your horse is healthy, stay away from the medicine chest."

The Times's whipping story, a day later, was headlined, "Down the Stretch They Go, Swinging a Controversial Tool," with a very large picture of Javier Santiago going to the whip, and a smaller one of Laura Hillenbrand, author of "Seabiscuit." Hillenbrand now is leading the charge against excessive whipping, and she said, "There are myriad reasons why many of us feel that the use of the whip in racing needs to be changed, and one of them is that the manner in which the whip is often used makes a presentation to the public that many find offensive and repellent."

Announcer Trevor Denman has made the same point repeatedly, but the lords of racing worry more about what a gambler will say if one horse is whipped and another is not. What if both are not whipped, as in much of Europe?

The euphoria over Smarty Jones's inspiring and emotional victory will last for weeks, longer if he wins the Triple Crown, which is possible after his smashing Derby performance.

But when the Crown fades into memory, the sting of last week's stories will remain in the minds of those who might have been disenchanted by them. They are the silent majority, those who do not attend horse racing and are not enthralled by it.

If you want to ask them their views, you will have to go somewhere besides the track. You won't find many of them there.