09/18/2002 11:00PM

Real sports, real problems


POMONA, Calif. - Somewhere mixed in with Tony Soprano, Dennis Miller, and that wacky bunch from "Six Feet Under," HBO slipped in a piece of ripe racing journalism this week on its "Real Sports" program with Bryant Gumbel.

The subject was jockeys. Specifically, vomiting jockeys. The producers of the story were fascinated with the drastic lengths to which some riders will go to make assigned weight. Randy Romero, who has become the poster boy for a five-pound increase in the scale of weights, was prominently featured, along with his battle against liver and kidney failure. He blames a lifetime of reducing for his physical plight.

Romero also blames the huge amounts of painkillers he took through the years for his numerous injuries, something that was not mentioned in the "Real Sports" piece. Harsh medications took a terrible toll on his kidneys, just as severe dieting and use of diuretics robbed his system of the nutrients required to maintain healthy immunities. Romero's purging was a part of the problem, but only a part.

Still, with only a 15-minute segment to tell the tale, "Real Sports" chose to go with the bulimia angle. Their choice. Next week, barfing supermodels.

A much better hour was spent Wednesday night in the company of Christopher Reeve, the actor who was rendered paralyzed from the shoulders down seven years ago in a riding accident. His most famous role was Superman.

The one-hour ABC documentary, "Courageous Steps," was directed by Reeve's son, Matthew. The portrait was intimate, and to the point. After being diagnosed as hopelessly quadriplegic, Reeve is able move a finger at will and generate leg motion when suspended in water. His goal now is to develop enough diaphragm strength to breathe without the aid of a ventilator.

As competing issues, there is no contest. Paralysis beats bulimia every time. The weight reducing abuses of jockeys can be overcome through nutritional education, peer pressure, rigorous monitoring and, yes, even a modest raise in the scale of weights to reflect the biological realities of human development.

Paralysis, however, is permanent. So far, anyway. And for every remarkable Christopher Reeve - who sweats like a lumberjack just to twitch that finger and presides over a research foundation and a paralysis resource center - there are thousands of accident victims who live quiet, difficult lives merely coping with the challenges of a world on wheels.

Fifty-one of them are jockeys. At least, that is how many are being assisted by the Jockeys' Guild. Fifty-one riders who survived the fall but never got up, suffering spinal column injuries that resulted from catastrophic breakdowns, sudden swerves into a rail, or any number of innocent stumbles.

It is these casualties of the racing war who deserve the attention, not the bulimics. Bulimia is not an occupational hazard. It is a desperate choice that becomes a treatable disease. Paralysis, on the other hand, looms a clear and present danger every time the flag falls.

Not only is paralysis the number one fear of every rider who every lived, it is also an indiscriminate, equal-opportunity disabler, attacking a Hall of Famer like Ron Turcotte, a regional hero like Rudy Baez, a 57-year-old veteran like Phil Ernst, or a young mother like Linda Hughes.

That is why the new management of the Guild has established the Disabled Jockeys' Endowment, replacing and vastly improving upon the organization's former Disabled Jockeys' Fund.

The Guild is committed to helping its disabled members with vocational training, wheelchairs, vehicle modification, medical supplies, and an array of merciful gestures not covered by Medicare. The Fund, however, was beleaguered with administrative costs and a shrinking pool of assets. For every dollar requested, the Fund was able to provide only 20 cents worth of assistance.

The Endowment has removed administration from the Guild and placed it in the hands of an independent board of directors. Their job is to watch the money, nurture the donations, and make sure the disabled riders get every penny. Joe Harper of Del Mar is a director. So is Gary Biszantz of Cobra Farm, as well as former NFL star Merlin Olsen, former L.A. Dodger Wes Parker, and businessman David Woodcock.

The immediate goal is to raise $10 million, according to L. Wayne Gertmenian, head of the management company hired by the Jockeys' Guild.

"At $10 million, we can feed the [Endowment fund's] current level of need, which is about $500,000 a year," Gertmenian said. "But this is not the kind of thing we want to go outside the industry for help. It has to come from within. So, to get things started, they put up a quarter of a million."

"They" did not mean those wealthy guys on the Endowment board. It was a core of well-known jockeys who contributed the seed money for the benefit of their own profession.

"You don't hear them bragging about it, either," Gertmenian said. "They just did it."

Hopefully, the rest of the industry will follow.