07/16/2001 11:00PM

Strange days up north, down south

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The French Renaissance playwright Moliere died 328 years ago, a bit too early to have enjoyed the sensuous pleasures of nailing a juicy trifecta or pick four, or of listening to the cacophony of a simulcasting parlor in full cry. He was, however, an astute handicapper, as he indicated in one of his plays when he wrote, "The world, dear Agnes, is a strange affair."

And getting stranger all the time, as recent actions of two divisions of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association illustrate.

Before bringing down the wrath of heaven (again) on my burdened shoulders, let me shout for the record that I think the HBPA is one of the worthiest organizations in the sport, doing great service for its members, and that its national spokesman, Bill Walmsley, is without question one of the most intelligent and reasoned leaders in racing.

There are, however, a few loose horses in his back paddocks.

In Ontario, the provincial division of the HBPA, under the guidance of president Larry Regan, has joined the Ontario Harness Horse Association in raising a defense fund for a horseman who was run out of New Jersey, banned in Ontario, and recently fined $350,000 and suspended for 10 years, as was one of his owners, for allegedly operating a shadow training scam. The Ontario Racing Commission, which levied the penalties, did so after a two-year investigation that produced 7,000 pages of evidence.

The HBPA's Ontario chapter and its harness counterpart justify their defense fund for the renegade on grounds of guaranteeing due process and constitutional rights for a member. Not mentioned was protecting due process for bettors at Woodbine, who were unaware they were betting on horses supposedly trained by one man, but actually trained by a man who is barred from racing in two of the largest racing jurisdictions, and tracks, on the continent.

Another concern, not voiced by the Ontario HBPA or OHHA but printed in an Ontario racing publication, was that the fines were too severe. "Horsemen Spooked by Big Fines," was the magazine headline.

Addressing that, two comments: If you're honest, you have nothing to fear regardless of how big the fines are; and if you're dirtying up the sport, a fine of a million dollars and life suspension might be an even more appropriate penalty.

Down in the Bluegrass, meanwhile, in the beating heart of American racing, Moliere's observation was being borne out once again.

The Kentucky chapter of the HBPA has asked the racing commission to table the nomination of one of the nation's leading racing chemists, Dr. Richard Sams of Ohio State University, to oversee Kentucky medication policies because he is not a veterinarian and - equally or perhaps far more important - because he is not a Kentuckian.

Letting someone who is not a member of the club, and worse is from out of state, look over the shoulders of the University of Kentucky's Tom Tobin as he helps formulate Kentucky medication policies is a bit more than the Bluegrass boys can handle. The HBPA's Kentucky president, Dr. Alex Harthill, made that abundantly clear. After advancing the argument that while Sams was unquestionably among the leaders of his profession as a chemist but is not a veterinarian and thus "not qualified to judge the pharmaceutical effects of medications on the horse" - a questionable premise at best, since they test substances on race horses at Ohio State - Harthill warmed up to the gist of his letter.

He wrote, "Has there been a search process conducted, prior to naming Dr. Sams? It would appear that there may well be qualified candidates in Kentucky, thereby eliminating the need to hire someone outside the State, who may not be familiar with the nuances of Kentucky's therapeutic medication program." You got that right, doctor. Nuances is quaint, but it is the correct word.

The imagery is almost too bizarre to conjure, but I can see the picture now: The Bluegrass HBPA meets in solemn session. The lights dim. Marty Maline gives the invocation. And Alex Harthill leads the group in singing "My Old Kentucky Home."