12/26/2007 1:00AM

These 11 unjustly tattooed with a scarlet letter

EmailTUCSON, Ariz. - You can go to your computer and Google the term "removing stains" and find 251,000 references, including instructions for removing stains of ink, mustard, oil, and blood.

But you can find none for removing stains on reputations. It is almost impossible to do.

The 55 players named in more than 400 pages of Sen. George Mitchell's report to the commissioner of baseball are indelibly marked. If nothing else, the press will make sure of that. Whether users, buyers, or sellers - or falsely accused, as Roger Clemens has claimed - they will carry the stigma of the Mitchell report for the rest of their lives.

All of this rushed to mind last week when the Ontario Racing Commission, after 10 months of investigation with no real answers, exonerated the "Ontario 11." The 11 trainers, including former Canadian harness trainer of the year Ben Wallace, had horses test positive last March for the banned substance aminorex.

The commission still does not know how the legal, over-the-counter sheep-wormer levamisole - used by some veterinarians to boost the immune system of horses - can produce positives for the stimulant aminorex, but it appears it can and does.

Finding that, and little else, in the investigation of the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, the commission finally decided to withdraw charges against the 11 "due to the uniqueness of the situation and evidence of mitigating circumstances."

It would be nice if the exonerated trainers could carry that finding in their wallets, and some may, but it is not likely it will do much good. They will be remembered as part of the Ontario 11.

I detest illegal medication and I became particularly interested in the Canadian case, largely because of the involvement of Ben Wallace.

I have known Wallace for years. He was trainer of the year in Canadian harness racing eight years ago and is still one of its most successful and respected trainers. He is bright, highly intelligent, and articulate, with credentials. I found it difficult to believe that he would be involved in using an illegal substance on a $7,000 or $8,000 claimer. If the case interests you enough, you can hear a half-hour interview I did with Wallace at www.harnesstracks.com.

Neither Wallace nor the 10 others involved denied their horses carried prohibited aminorex in their systems. They did deny they administered it, and the levamisole findings confirmed it was possible that medication produced findings so similar to aminorex as to be indistinguishable.

The racing commission, in exonerating the trainers, said, "We have concluded and are satisfied that the 11 licensees . . . did not fall below the level of reasonable care in protecting their horses from a prohibited substance that resulted from the use of a non-prohibited substance."

Then, having exonerated the trainers because of the findings on lavamisole and aminorex, the commission used a different standard on the horses involved. It disqualified them and stripped them of earnings in the specific races because "they ran with a prohibited substance in their system and as such had in their race an unfair advantage."

That is regulatory gymnastics at its best, or worst. The Ontario case brings a realization that protection of the innocent is as important as prosecution of the guilty.

Trying to reconcile all this philosophically with my unchanged strong feelings on illegal medication, I returned to the Mitchell report and particularly to its 37-page summary and recommendations.

Near the end, Mitchell writes two paragraphs that summarize racing's dilemma as well as baseball's. As you read them, substitute "trainers" for "players" and "racing" for "baseball."

"The minority of players who used such substances were wrong," Mitchell wrote. "They violated federal law and baseball policy, and they distorted the fairness of competition by trying to gain an unfair advantage over the majority of players who followed the law and the rules. They - the players who follow the law and the rules - are faced with the painful choice of either being placed at a competitive disadvantage or becoming illegal users themselves. No one should have to make that choice."

Mitchell concludes, "Obviously the players who illegally used performance-enhancing substances are responsible for their actions. But they did not act in a vacuum. Everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades - commissioners, club officials, the Players Association, and players - shares to some extent in the responsibility of the steroids era. There was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and deal with it early on. As a result, an environment developed in which illegal use because widespread."

Now, Mitchell notes, players have moved on to Human Growth Hormone, or HGH, for which no tests are available. Dave Anderson of the New York Times says that without a test "it's all academic, a gun without bullets." Racing please note.