08/24/2006 12:00AM

The truth is out there - let's post it


DEL MAR, Calif. - It has come to this. A trainer pops off in the heat of a tough loss, accuses an opponent of cheating - and, by extension, the officials for letting him cheat - and the holy wrath of the league officials comes crashing down on his head.

This sounds more like FIFA, soccer's international organization, or even the NBA, which tends to frown on anyone from the ranks baiting the zebras in public. Players like Shaquille O'Neal and Josh Smith have been tagged with $15,000 penalties, while coaches Pat Riley and Mike Woodson, among others, have been docked $20,000 for carping about the refs within earshot of the media. Then there is Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the all-time champ, who most recently was fined $250,000 for his over-amped reaction to the officiating in the NBA finals last June against Miami.

By comparison, horse racing is a guilt-free monument to the First Amendment. Basically, you can say just about anything you want about anybody to anyone - targeting stewards, trainers, jockeys, the racing commission, whatever - and sometimes you can even see it published, getting nothing more than maybe a sideways glance or a shake of the head. Or complete agreement.

The first rip in this gritty fabric, at least out West, came in April 2005, when Ingrid Fermin, the freshly minted executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, filed charges of conduct detrimental to racing against the principals connected to the filly Sweet Catomine, whose flop in the 2005 Santa Anita Derby had a head-scratching backstory that never really became clear. Fermin's intentions may have been good, but her targets were all wrong, and the charges were practically laughed out of a subsequent stewards hearing.

Now comes the fallout from trainer Murray Johnson's post-Pacific Classic comments, when he suggested that the winner, Lava Man, trained by Doug O'Neill, may have benefited from the same high blood bicarbonate levels allegedly detected in a single O'Neill-trained horse last spring. All California starters have their blood drawn prerace and tested post-race, and through Wednesday, O'Neill had started 613 horses in 2006, all but a handful in California.

Johnson, a classy bloke whose work with Perfect Drift ranks with some of the finest in recent training history, almost immediately dispatched a raiding party to hunt down and kill his words before they did any real damage. Johnson apologized profusely to owners for the embarrassment, to O'Neill, to the guy who parked his car, stopping just short of taking out a billboard on Interstate 5.

This, however, was not quite good enough for Richard Shapiro, chairman of the CHRB. On Wednesday, Shapiro issued a statement that not only showered praise upon O'Neill's handling of Lava Man, but also revealed that all eight Pacific Classic starters tested below the TCO2 penalty threshold, and that Lava Man tested lowest of all.

"It is time that everyone recognize this is an exceptional horse that has been trained and managed superbly," said Shapiro, an owner and breeder himself. "The horse and trainer deserve our utmost respect for their great success."

"He didn't have to do that," O'Neill said Thursday. "I do think it shows how he wants a fair playing field, without targeting people. He just wants to know the data, and then use common sense from there."

The whole flap could be written off to predictable blowback from California's aggressively publicized TCO2 testing program, first operated by the racing associations and now a part of CHRB rules. Controls were clearly necessary, but for some reason a singular stigma lingers on trainers who have run contrary to a TCO2 test, unlike overages or positives on some of the more conventional drugs in the testing crosshairs.

Shapiro's statement serves to balance the hysteria. But admirable as his gesture may have been, a can of worms surely lurks here somewhere, waiting to be opened. According to California procedure, test results are supposed to remain confidential, until they are confirmed and formal accusations are brought. Has the chairman set a precedent, using test results as tools aimed more at public relations than enforcement? Or has he broken new ground in promoting the good name of the sport, issuing a list of the horses and their trainers who actually obeyed the rules?

Some 20 years ago, future Hall of Famer Richard Mandella stood up at a heated meeting of the CHRB and demanded to know if any of his horses had come back with a positive test for clenbuterol, an illegal bronchodilator at the time whose use was just starting to break cover. Lacking confidence in the accuracy of the tests, the racing board was dragging its feet in bringing any accusations, but Mandella's name was one of several being bounced around the backstretch gossip loop. Mandella knew he had never used the drug - tests backed him up - but he wanted to hear it come from the board to hush the rumors once and for all. The board, in its wisdom, kept mum.

Times are changing. If the racing board has confidence in its testing procedures, then why not post the results - everybody's results - starting with TCO2 levels of every horse after every race and then going on to Bute, clenbuterol, anabolic steroids, and eventually a listing of which joints have been injected and when. There's nothing like a little spritz of transparency to clear the air.