01/09/2002 12:00AM

So far, not much to celebrate


ARCADIA, Calif. - You would think by now that the skin would have grown thick enough to withstand even the most crushing disappointments, shielding a sensitive reporter from assaults on both the head and the heart.

Sorry to say, it wasn't so. The first few days of 2002 have landed some real body blows, and it's beginning to look like a long, tumultuous year, full of chaos and confusion. Moving the Eclipse Awards from the Diplomat to the Fontainebleau was traumatic enough. Dealing with the following news items will be much more of a challenge:

* The broad consensus calling for uniform medication policies is a good thing for everyone. If accomplished, it will achieve a rare daily double, offering both positive, practical reform and solid public relations value. Besides, the concept of tighter regulations on raceday drugs should not scare away any owner, trainer, or veterinarian who plays the game on the square.

It was distressing, therefore, to hear that the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is withholding support for the recommendations made by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. In order to fall in line, Kentucky's generous menu of raceday medications would need to be changed. But as we know, that which has been given is always hard to take away.

"Unless there's scientific evidence to the contrary, we're not prepared to change our policy," said Kentucky HBPA executive director Marty Maline.

Don't hold your breath. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative. Hopefully, the Kentucky horsemen will accept the same comprehensive "scientific evidence" that they use before they put their horses on the variety of medications available on race days.

* The news that Magna Entertainment Corp. has withdrawn its signals from Internet racing sites should come as no surprise. This comes in the midst of the ongoing gridlock between Magna and tracks served by TVG over the creation of a single betting portal. Such conflict is a sure-fire recipe to splinter and dilute the potential customer base. No one wins.

It is true that Magna's systematic retreat from the general market, in anticipation of creating some sort of wholly owned exclusivity, makes perfect sense when viewed as a strict market model. But that is shortsighted. While the company may be serving its stockholders, its good citizenship in the racing community comes into question.

One wiseguy tossed out the possibility that the natural extension of Magna's policy would be to eventually withhold its racing signals from its own tracks, thereby forcing the public to present themselves at the grandstand gates if they wanted to play the ponies at Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park. The thought is getting less farfetched every day.

* The best racetrack promotions are tied to the sport itself, and for the last four years, the most popular event in the Santa Anita Park playbook has been the British Airways International Jockey Challenge, matching an American team against a European all-star squad in a four-race series.

It wasn't quite the Ryder Cup, although some of the same electricity filled the air. And there was something definitely sweet about the sight of four sets of red, white, and blue silks sweeping to the first four places in the final race of the 2000 series, giving the Americans a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Well, kiss it goodbye. The budget ax fell, and the Jockey Challenge was considered too expensive to carry on. In terms of promoting the sport, it was a grand success. But in these tight corporate times, the bottom line is located about an eighth of a mile in front of the finish line.

Take heart, though. Santa Anita still plans its sure-fire giveaways for turnstile-spinning fans, including a thermos, a backpack, a sports watch. and a weather vane. And this year there will be two - count 'em, two - microbrew festivals in the infield. Ahhhh, beer.

* Just when we were getting used to life without Point Given and Tiznow - what a Santa Anita Handicap that would have been - along comes the news that Bienamado has been retired because of a suspensory injury.

There has not been a more popular long-distance grass horse roaming California since the days of Sandpit. As a racehorse, Bienamado had speed, stamina, flair, and nothing but horrible physical luck. He had a dicey knee when he got here from Europe, at the end of his 3-year-old season. A hind-end problem sent him to the sidelines during the summer of 2000, then last year he missed the Breeders' Cup because of a splint.

Still, he managed to win the San Juan Capistrano, Hollywood Turf Cup, Whittingham Memorial, and Sunset Handicap, which means his name and memory will be around for a long time to come. Paco Gonzalez, who nursed Bienamado back time and time again, summoned a fitting Mexican proverb in a futile attempt to soften the blow.

"Horses, they are like a bar of soap," he said. "Every time you use them, you wear a little bit away."