03/30/2007 12:00AM

Sometimes all you can do is laugh


ARCADIA, Calif. - According to the website of the Museum of Hoaxes, the only horse-related prank on the list of the Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of all time took place in Venice, Italy, on April 1, 1919.

"The citizens of Venice awoke to find piles of horse manure deposited throughout the Piazza San Marco, as if a procession of horses had gone through there during the night," the museum reported. "This was extremely unusual, since the piazza is surrounded by canals and not easily accessible to horses. The manure turned out to be the work of the infamous British prankster Horace de Vere Cole, who was honeymooning in Venice. He had transported a load of manure over from the mainland the night before with the help of a gondolier and had then deposited small piles of it throughout the Piazza. Perhaps he should have been paying more attention to his wife while on honeymoon because, evidently tired by his constant hijinks, she divorced him a few years later."

Clearly, Madame de Vere Cole had no sense of humor.

The international day of foolishness is red meat to practical jokers, and some of the leading practitioners have done their finest work as April dawns. Among the other great moments in the Top 100 are:

* A 1999 story in the Phoenix New Times detailing a charitable plan to "arm the homeless" that was picked up by the Associated Press and "60 Minutes II" before they got the joke. Rush Limbaugh and CNN fell for a similar story six years earlier in Ohio.

* The sensational report by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, in 1984, announcing the invention of chewy Vodka Bars. The bars, designed to compete with Mars and Snickers, would come in three flavors - lemon, coconut, and salted cucumber. Mmmm, salted cucumber. Alas, it turned out not to be true.

* The eruption of the Great Blue Hill (elev. 635 ft.) as reported by Channel 7 in Boston on April 1, 1980, that sent residents of Milton, Mass. into the streets in fear of a Mount St. Helens-style disaster. Just kidding.

* And then there was the 1990 report in News of the World that the English Channel tunnel would cost another $14 billion to correct an engineering error resulting in the two halves of the tunnel, being built simultaneously from the coasts of France and England, missing each other by 14 feet. The error was attributed to the fact that French engineers had insisted on using metric specifications in their blueprints. The English saw no reason it would not be true.

Politicians can be real April Fool cut-ups, too. As the day approaches, the hard-working citizens of California have been asked to take seriously the fact that state Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat, filed a Senate resolution Thursday calling for California Horse Racing Board chairman Richard Shapiro to resign, citing the board's denial of a rules waiver that would have allowed Bay Meadows to continue operating for two years without installing a synthetic racing surface.

Okay, so it was March 29. But the Senate was not in session Friday, which meant Yee had to pull the trigger on his prank before the Senate adjourned for the long weekend. Nothing funny about an April Fool's joke on April 2.

Then again, there's nothing funny about this one at all. Yee, whose district includes Bay Meadows, is a highly respected legislator known for his advocacy of children's welfare, patients' rights, and protection of California's coastline. He was elected last November with 77.5 percent of the vote.

In a statement that went on way too long to hold an audience, Yee cited job losses at Bay Meadows at the end of this year and the fiscal impact on the local community as reasons Shapiro should step down, or something like that. This was the hilarious part, since the CHRB action is being interpreted by Yee as pulling the plug on Bay Meadows only a year or so before the Bay Meadows Land Co. will be razing the track and replacing it with office buildings. There seems to be no accounting for the fact that the land company's actions will effectively impact Bay Meadows employees and fiscal contributions to the community for, well, forever.

"In light of that, we have to develop a plan," Shapiro said Friday morning. "And until we know what that [closing] date is for certain, we can't develop that plan. If that date certain was at the end of 2008, I would have probably been more inclined to go along with a one-year waiver, with a guarantee that they would stick with their commitment and let the rest of the industry effectuate the changes necessary.

"When Bay Meadows asked for the two-year waiver, they were asked if they would guarantee that they would race for those two years," Shapiro went on. "They said no, they could not. So what do they expect from the industry? Have people not noticed that there are now office buildings where the former Bay Meadows backstretch used to be? I don't want to see people unduly displaced, and I would love to see Bay Meadows remain a racetrack. But it is Bay Meadows that is choosing not to be a racetrack."

And that's no joke.