04/09/2009 11:00PM

One crime far worse than other


ARCADIA, Calif. - It's a great week for righteous indignation, what with Easter, Passover, and the birthday of Buddha all arriving in an ecumenical cluster. Sunday is also David Letterman's 62nd birthday, which is a whole different matter, but still worthy of celebration for those of us who worship at the altar of the absurd.

The congregation, though, has been stirred by recent events, and the Jeremiah Wrights of Thoroughbred racing have been holding forth. No sooner had trainer Jeff Mullins blatantly transgressed the detention facility rules of the New York Racing Association than did another outrage spill into the mainstream media, upon the discovery that the well-known owner Ernie Paragallo was allowing horses to be neglected to the point of starvation and abuse on his upstate New York farm.

Taken as separate events, the two stories have very few intersecting lines. Thoroughbreds were involved, along with high-profile individuals with heavily vested interests in the running of this year's Kentucky Derby. Mullins trains Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge, while Paragallo raced and still owns a large share of the stallion Unbridled's Song, sire of Derby contenders Dunkirk and Old Fashioned.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association issued a statement from its president, Alex Waldrop, that managed to conflate the Paragallo and Mullins stories into a single huge, ill-timed bruise on the integrity of the game

"Two recent incidents in New York are very troubling to the hundreds of thousands of responsible individuals who derive their livelihood from Thoroughbred breeding and racing and the millions of customers who participate in our game," Waldrop said in his statement. "In both instances, should the charges prove true, authorities should move swiftly to impose the most severe penalties applicable under the circumstances,"

Sounds tough, until you realize that any penalties suffered by Mullins should, in the proper scheme of things, pale by comparison to the public flogging that Paragallo deserves. Perhaps the NTRA wanted to maximize impact, or save paper, but lumping them together serves no constructive purpose.

Mullins either disregarded or did not bother to find out the rules of the game he was playing in New York and was smacked down quickly. No horses suffered, and horseplayers were protected by a scratch. Unfortunately, the owners of the scratched horse were hung out to dry. How they deal with Mullins is up to them. As for official penalties, Mullins would be wise to take his medicine - prescription or otherwise - without a squeak.

By comparison, though, Paragallo's crimes are monstrous. As noted by one of the horse rescue volunteers on the scene of the Paragallo farm where 177 horses were found in various stages of ill health, starving and exhibiting open wounds, "This just didn't happen in the last week."

For all their frailty as racing creatures, horses can be tough to kill. They will forage while they can, tolerate pasture injuries and infections, and suffer quietly for months upon months until blessed relief finally comes . . . in whatever form. No one who is found to be responsible for subjecting Thoroughbreds to such physical and mental tortures should be allowed anywhere near the business. Ever.

Sermon's over.

Pegram good choice for honor

On a much more Eastery note, far from the dark corner into which Paragallo has painted the sport, the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation will be honoring Mike Pegram and his wife, Mary Ellen, at its annual fund-raising dinner on Monday night in Pasadena.

The work of the foundation providing scholarships for the children of backstretch employees has been praised here before. Named for the late Eddie Gregson, the organization is headed by trainer Jenine Sahadi, whose board of directors includes, among other notables, Gregson's wife, Gail, his sister, Patricia Millington, and Eddie Delahoussaye, who rode the Gregson-trained Gato Del Sol to victory in the 1982 Kentucky Derby.

In choosing Pegram for its 2009 honoree, the foundation got the right guy. Even before he won the 1998 Kentucky Derby with Real Quiet, or the 1999 Kentucky Oaks with Silverbulletday, or the 2001 Dubai World Cup with Captain Steve, or back-to-back Breeders' Cup Sprints with Midnight Lute, Pegram was front and center as a racing celebrity who knew how to use his leverage in the right cause. As an owner of a successful stable of McDonald's franchises, Pegram was quick to tie the goodwill that quality horse racing could bestow to the work of the Ronald McDonald House program for children fighting cancer. That was Big Mike on those commercials, more effective than anything Lori Petty or Rip Torn could do to bring the right kind of attention to the sport.

True to his down home roots, Pegram prefers never to have a fuss sent his way. His reaction to being honored was "no," then "no" again, especially in light of the names he was being asked to follow as benefit honorees, including his horse racing idol, Bob Lewis.

"I'll tell you what, there's only one reason why I'm letting this happen, and it's because it's for those kids," Pegram said. "The kids coming along in the next generation need to do a whole lot better job with our sport than than the grownups have done, and anything that gives them a shot is well worth whatever we can give it."