03/24/2004 1:00AM

Too many trainers knocking too many races out of the park


PHILADELPHIA - Anybody else wonder exactly where horse racing's Balco is located? Each time another Major League Baseball steroid revelation comes out of northern California, it is hard not to think there might be a horse racing laboratory dealing out some pharmaceutical that makes Beyer Speed Figures soar from 80 to 110 overnight.

Barry Bonds goes from a sleek athlete his entire career to a man with a Body by Jake, a very large head, and the capability of hitting 73 home runs. Look at pictures of Mark McGwire when he was a rookie with the Oakland A's and contrast them with 1998, when he hit 70 home runs for the Cardinals. He does not look like the same person.

The national pastime is to wonder which players are juiced and which are not. Everybody is under suspicion.

The baseball players' union - not unlike some HBPA groups in powerful racing states (see Kentucky) - refuses to acknowledge there is a problem. And it fights every attempt to have serious testing.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig stays mum. There is zero leadership.

Some think there is not enough leadership on the issue in horse racing. There are some voices in horse racing that favor strict testing, but are there enough?

The NTRA and The Jockey Club have come out in favor of stricter testing and uniform standards. They put together an organization called the NTRA Task Force on Drug Testing and Medication to pursue uniform standards and testing, and the group is in the process of discussing regulatory language with racing jurisdictions.

Regardless of what is going on, the betting public has become more and more cynical. When you see trainers win with half their starters over an extended period of time, it absolutely is the horse racing equivalent of 70 home runs.

Everybody thinks they know who the cheaters are. Some of these trainers are being wrongly suspected. The problem is complex, because nobody really knows what they think they know. What is certain is that suspicion of impropriety is damaging the sport.

Overnight sensations happen at the beginning of a career. They do not happen in the middle of it. They certainly don't happen near the end.

So how do 15 percent trainers suddenly become 30 percent trainers? How do 25 percent trainers become 50 percent trainers?

What about the honest trainer with the honest owner? How much longer will they stay in a game where the playing field is so obviously not level?

And how much longer will the best players continue to wager on a sport where the outcome often appears to be determined by the veterinarians?

What about all the honest vets? What do they think of what has happened to their sport?

There are people out there desperately trying to put together a coalition to fight this sport's bad guys. They are mostly tilting at windmills, but they are trying.

In baseball, they are really hoping this will all just go away. But it won't. This is a big national story, scrutinized by a press that is demanding answers. There will be lots of lying along the way. Self-preservation will be the overriding theme. Until there are answers, baseball has a serious credibility problem.

Sadly, so does horse racing. That the drug problem in this sport is not getting the national scrutiny is only because of the differences in how baseball and racing are covered, not because there is no problem. Horse racing does not get near the overall coverage of baseball. Thus, its problems don't get similar attention.

There are a few lonely racing reporters out there trying to chase down the drug problem, but most newspapers have neither the resources nor the interest to cover it. It is simply easier to report on the winner of the Saturday stakes than it is to try to lift the veil of secrecy on the backstretch.

Everybody knows there is a major problem. Something needs to be done. The lockdown at the Breeders' Cup, where horses must be on the grounds 24 hours before the races, has proved a wonderful first step in giving everybody a fair chance. That is the model.

Maybe what we need here is some kind of a reward. Perhaps, instead of a guaranteed $1 million pick six, the NTRA could put up a $1 million reward for evidence leading to a conviction for cheating.

If money is the incentive to cheat, why can't it be the incentive to stop the cheaters?