05/13/2008 12:00AM

Time for racing and its critics to move on


TUCSON, Ariz. - The savage storm unleashed by the media following the Eight Belles disaster still rages unabated, and its fury caught American racing by surprise.

The filly died, tragically, but the story won't. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and an obliging press grabbed the initiative, and left racing fighting a desperate defensive battle, working feverishly to quiet the hurricane.

The wind has not subsided. Sports are in a lull, with Tiger Woods idle, the NBA playoffs droning endlessly on and on, Isiah Thomas gone as the whipping boy in New York, and the baseball drug story winding down. Sports pages and columns need to be filled. The Eight Belles story is filling them.

After the Derby and ever since, every ink-stained guy and gal with a laptop rushed to the barricades, red, white, and blue bandanas on their heads, to get the tumbrels rolling with cries of "To the guillotine."

They wanted the heads of the jock, the trainer, the owner, dirt tracks, training methods, and the sport itself, in the rush for blood. It is hard to fill columns and features in off weeks, and here was a golden opportunity to do it and raise hell.

Racing, caught off-guard by the unceasing battering of media and the public outcry whipped up by it, went into quick response mode. Committees were thrown together overnight, new groups formed, studies promised, battle lines drawn, responses framed, synthetic tracks discussed. Old PR types were called in, and new ones hired, as if the fury of the perfect storm could be quelled by logical responses that all in racing know by heart, and all not in racing ignore.

Bill Handleman, the veteran and knowledgeable columnist of the influential Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, had it right when he wrote that trying to talk logic to racing's new and old critics is like trying to argue with a drunk.

Ray Kerrison of the New York Post had it right, too, writing that the Eight Belles furor was like a high-tech lynching.

Racing is not going to die with Eight Belles, sad as her tragedy may be. It could experience a turnaround as quickly as the Belmont, where the American-bred, Japanese-owned Casino Drive, off his first start victory in Japan by 11 1/2 lengths running 1 1/8 miles, and his 5 3/4-length romp in the $200,000 Peter Pan at Belmont in the second start of his life last Saturday, showed he is a worthy challenger to Big Brown.

The public understandably will continue to mourn the filly, but the racing public, and many others, will be fascinated by the Belmont matchup, particularly if Big Brown wins the Preakness. Even the press is likely to stop bleating long enough to put down their knives to cover it. This could be the beginning of another Affirmed and Alydar era, and could give Belmont its largest recent crowd.

As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote many years ago, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that's why they call it the present."

Racing should turn its full attention to the gift of Casino Drive, and let the fires of the press die down, as they will with time.

Nothing will bring Eight Belles back. If every racetrack in America were synthetic, horses still would fall and break ankles and be put down. And despite what PETA says, running is natural for Thoroughbreds. PETA should turn its attention to non-fur-bearing creatures, like humans, or the sub-humans and those who enjoy watching them on what American television euphemistically calls "ultimate fighting."

It is ultimate only in its savagery, and it appeals to those with the same instincts for blood as those writhing and writing in self-declared agony over horse racing, and stirring up readers with their prose.

Before racing panics further, it should show its courage by throwing out the chemist trainers. Ontario, the North American leader, this week suspended an inside-industry drug dealer 15 years and fined him $60,000 for possessing and selling prohibited substances. Those using them deserve the same treatment.

Racing also needs to strengthen and enforce excessive whipping rules, an overused American exclusive that costs the sport untold fans. Many, disgusted with it, simply walk away.

The argument that whips are needed might carry weight if it weren't that racing in Europe does fine without them, or severely limits their use. Alan Leavitt, the innovative and activist harness horse breeder newly appointed to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, is wisely proposing that a similar rule - keeping the lines in both hands - be introduced for harness racing in the Bluegrass.

That's proactive thinking, not reactive, which is where racing finds itself today as the once-a-year media moralists keep marching in their noisy, damaging, and clattering crusade.