11/29/2005 1:00AM

Top ranks are on front line


TUCSON, Ariz. - It is 143 years since the Confederate Army of Gen. Braxton Bragg lost Kentucky to the 55,000-man Union Army of the Ohio of Gen. Don Carlos Buell at the Battle of Perryville, but vestiges of civil war remain in the Bluegrass.

Gen. Marty Maline's Army of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association still has troops in the medication minefield that will not surrender, and skirmishes continue on other fronts.

Last week a new insurgency arose, with the target the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, which has tried hard to restore law and order in the state. This time the hostile fire came from Kentucky's chief veterinarian, Gary L. Wilson, who blasted a broadside at the racing authority and the administration that created it.

In a 23-page bound document that outlined grievances ranging from shortages in security to shortages of adequate emergency equipment and supplies, Wilson asked, "Is the administration/Kentucky Horse Racing Authority committed to developing a program that sets industry standards, or are they interested in just getting by?" He called the funding and staffing crisis in Kentucky "appalling."

Much of his ire apparently reached the boiling point after a September incident at Turfway Park where a horse ambulance called to help a seriously dehydrated horse reportedly had neither medication nor water to treat the stricken runner.

The woman who recommended Wilson for his job last summer, LaJuana Wilcher, secretary of the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet that oversees the racing authority, was not amused by Wilson's charges. She called her staff "the most competent anywhere," and said Dr. Wilson simply doesn't appreciate the complicated process of state government.

Anyone who has been in racing long enough to discover which end of the horse the oats go in can appreciate "the complicated process of state government." That roadblock, and not the horsemen's association, is the barrier to racing progress, and certainly not just in Kentucky.

Jim Gallagher, the racing authority's executive director who came from the north to help drag Kentucky into the 21st century, could be forgiven if he might long at times for the relative quiet and solitude of Long Island. He told the Louisville Courier-Journal that "a lot of this is being blown a little bit out of proportion."

What could not be blown out of proportion was the letter written recently by breeder Arthur Hancock III and signed by 130 other major owners and breeders of Thoroughbreds. Addressed to the executive director and members of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, it blew away any smoke screen as to what the people who make the Bluegrass blue think about medication, and dispelled any notion that major breeders and owners oppose strong new regulations on race-day medication.

The letter began, "As owners and breeders of Thoroughbred racehorses in the commonwealth of Kentucky, we have strong opinions about medication and penalty regulations promulgated recently by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. We support these new regulations wholeheartedly and believe they are long overdue. . . . [A]s owners and breeders in the Thoroughbred business, we put up all the money and take all the risks. Trainers and veterinarians are on our payrolls and those opposing the new regulations do not represent our views."

Hancock wrote, "Decent and honest trainers and veterinarians cannot maintain their integrity when they feel disadvantaged by the unfair practices of a few of their competitors." He pointed out, correctly, that "the betting public is in the dark about medications a horse may have been given before it races."

And he summarized, succinctly and accurately, racing's argument against permissive and illegal medication when he wrote, "A trainer's mastery of chemistry or a veterinarian's superior drugs should not determine winnings."

Arthur Hancock's lucid statement - consistent with other Hancock family pronouncements on medication over the years - is eloquent and impressive. It becomes even more significant with the names of those who signed it.

They started with Josephine Abercrombie of Pin Oak Stud and ended with Bill Young of Overbrook Farm. In between were 128 other highly recognizable racing personalities like Helen Alexander and Gary Biszantz, Jim Brady and Alice Chandler, Robert and Catesby Clay, Will Farish and Seth Hancock, Stuart Janney and John Magnier, Robert and Janice McNair, Alfred and Charles Nuckols, Virginia Payson and Ogden Mills Phipps, Rick Patino and Tony Ryan, Demi O'Brien and George Strawbridge, and trainers Scotty Schulhofer and John Ward.

That is an abbreviated random sample of the signers of Hancock's declaration of independence, but a compelling one.

It is a roster that could have been strong enough to turn the tide at Perryville, and hopefully it will be enough to win the Battle of the Bluegrass.