08/29/2007 12:00AM

Some words carry more weight


DEL MAR, Calif. - It has been a banner week for sincere apologies, agonized explanations and public recriminations, in both the world of sports and the pit of politics. For instance:

"I take full responsibility for my actions. Not for one second will I sit right here and point the finger and try to blame anybody else for my actions or what I've done."

And . . .

"I'm not going to try to make any excuses. I don't think there's any excuse. It was the heat of the moment . . . when I made what turned out to be a bad decision. Suffice it to say, I made a bad decision, and I'll take responsibility."

Or . . .

"I am not gay and never have been."

Okay, that one might not quite fit the pattern, coming from Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho in his denial that he made sexual advances to an undercover officer in a public men's room, while pleading guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct. He did, however, confess that his actions "brought a cloud over Idaho," and for that he asked forgiveness.

The first apology came from NFL quarterback Michael Vick, the highest paid performer in America's favorite pastime, who pled guilty to felony charges associated with dog fighting. The sincerity of his apology will be weighed against the history of his involvement in the barbaric practice.

The second mea culpa came from Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze, who was given a 15-day suspension and a $2,500 fine by the stewards at Bay Meadows racetrack for misuse of his whip at the end of the first race there on Aug. 23, when his mount, Imperial Eyes, suffered what turned out to be a fatal injury while leading by several lengths in an $8,000 maiden claimer.

It is a huge and illogical leap to compare Vick's terrible transgressions to Baze's split-second decision in the heat of battle. But there are those who would conflate the two headlines, wrapping them neatly in a pattern of animal abuse by famous athletes.

In Vick's case, he admitted participated in the lethal culling of dogs from the fighting pack. Go ahead, spin that with a public apology. In Baze's case, there is no evidence that his actions necessarily caused Imperial Eyes to fracture his leg, even though the sequence of events looks grim on tape.

A review of California's whip use rules bans jockeys from hitting a horse "on the head, flanks, or on any part of its body other than the shoulders or hind quarters; during the post parade except when necessary to control the horse; excessively or brutally causing welts or breaks in the skin; when the horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained its maximum placing; or persistently even though the horse is showing no response under the whip."

Internet and cable television has broadened the exposure of racing beyond its traditional audience, giving the Baze incident a greater chance for both circulation and outrage. His statements after the penalties were issued were sincere, ringing true to those who know Baze as a dedicated professional who never hesitates to give his horses the proper credit for not only his success, but his outright survival.

Through Sunday's racing, Baze had won a record 9,825 races. More significantly, he had thrown his leg over 43,475 mounts, which means he has had 43,475 chances to come back paralyzed or worse, but it hasn't happened.

"I'm sorry if I was the cause in some way for the horse to suffer any more than necessary," Baze said. "In this day and age of athletes and public figures making public apologies, it can begin to ring hollow. I want people to know that I am truly sorry. Nobody knows how contrite I am in my heart."

Whether or not the general public looks at Baze differently from this point forward remains to be seen. As far as Forrest Metz is concerned, however, Baze did nothing improper. And Metz gets a vote because he owned Imperial Eyes.

"I don't believe there's anything Russell did during that race that added or compounded any of the injuries that Imperial Eyes sustained," Metz said from his office in Phoenix. "I've owned horses for 20 years, and this is the first one I've lost in a race. We hate for these things to happen."

The attention focused on Baze has overshadowed the fact that another horse has been lost while running over a Bay Meadows main-track surface that has not enjoyed a particularly good safety record this year. Imperial Eyes was a 4-year-old gelded son of Cee's Tizzy who had raced nine times without winning, but had obviously found his level, with 3 seconds in his last 4 starts. Let the record show that Imperial Eyes was on his way to that elusive first victory when the end came.

"As far as Russell is concerned, I believe he just thought the horse took a bad step," Metz said. "Speaking as the owner of the horse, I don't believe he deserved the penalties he received. I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to ride him on any of my horses. But there was an outcry, and the stewards had to do what they had to do."