01/07/2004 12:00AM

For Pete's sake, it's just a bet

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Before this Pete Rose thing gets too carried away, it is important to note that in horse racing, it is okay for a coach to bet on his own team.

This will probably come as a surprise to the mainstream world of sports journalism, so busy this week dusting off old Pete Rose judgments and passing them off as new. In damning Rose's penchant for placing the occasional bet, few baseball writers can resist lumping "the racetrack" in with the several other types of gambling with which Rose has been associated. The following passage from Ross Newhan's commentary in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times was typical:

"Fourteen years after denying he had bet on baseball in a book written in collaboration with Roger Kahn," Newhan wrote, "Rose has changed his story but not his life, if his appearances at Nevada casinos and Southern California racetracks are any indication."

Oooooh, racetracks. Bad Pete.

In fact, Rose was at the races quite recently, indulging in the most foolish, high-stakes gamble of them all - Thoroughbred ownership. His horse, Fort Point, won the ninth race at Santa Anita on Dec. 26, taking down a $10,200 purse and then having the good sense to be claimed for another $25,000.

Rose, apparently feeling quite comfortable in this hotbed of sin and corruption, told trainer Bob Hess he would be back for more. Hess, of course, was too busy cashing his Fort Point tickets to pay much attention. Not really.

"I've sat with Pete during the races," Hess said. "He goes race by race, and if he doesn't like the race, he passes. He does draw a crowd, though. As a rule, I've seen him sign any sort of autograph, as long as it's not during the running of a race that he's bet on.

"As for me, I'd love to play the horses," Hess added with a sigh. "But I think it takes an immense amount of focus, and I just don't have the time. But you know what? The first time we entered Fort Point I thought he couldn't lose. I told Pete that, and then he got beat. I don't know what Pete did the other day, but I bet $200 the first time and nothing the last time he ran."

Hess, though a bust at the windows, was keeping in strict compliance with Rule 1970 of the California Horse Racing Board Rules and Regulations, which states, in part:

"No . . . trainer having a horse entered in a race shall wager on or include in any wager any other horse competing in such races to finish first regardless of whether such wager is 'exotic' or 'conventional.' "

This, of course, drives Mel Stute nuts. Sporting his own set of Hall of Fame credentials, the 76-year-old Stute is California's resident role model for how the game should be played. Even so, the trainer must conform his handicapper's discipline to the rules.

"Say I run a horse, he's 20-1, and I think he's got a big chance," Stute said. "I buy a pick six ticket and I put my horse in there, but say there's a 4-5 shot in the same race. Any handicapper would put that horse in to cover up, even though I'd rather have my horse win. But I can't, because if that 4-5 shot wins and I win the pick six, they'll fine the heck out of me."

As far as guys like Stute are concerned, Rose is a kindred spirit to be welcomed with open arms into the racetrack family. The baseball-horse racing crossover is not exactly fresh news, and Hall of Famers have been known to dabble at the track from way back.

"More than 60 years ago, when I was a groom at Longacres, Rogers Hornsby was managing the Seattle Rainiers," Stute recalled, citing the great Cardinals hitter. "He'd always end up getting in trouble, because Longacres had that four o'clock post time on weekdays and the races weren't over until seven. He'd never get to the games in time to turn in the lineup."

It has been 13 years since columnist Jim Murray weighed in on the Pete Rose issue, rebuking those who would set his particular sins apart.

"I'm a law and order man myself," Murray wrote. "I've been known to deplore the fact that society has lost its capacity for indignation, has shrunk from punishing its criminals. And I completely understand that you hold the highly successful to a different set of standards than the less privileged. You want to kick a president out of office for hushing up a robbery, that's okay with me.

"But hey! Pete Rose didn't go to Harvard. Pete Rose never took prelaw. Stop and think about it, Pete made a living in an industry where it's not only all right to steal, it's expected of you."

In horse racing, the participants back their hard work with everything they've got - blood, sweat, tears, and bankroll. Bob Hess, who hopes to be training a lot more horses for Rose, had the best, last word on the subject:

"If anything, I think the public - our public, anyway - would love to know the coach is betting on his team every time out."