10/06/2004 12:00AM

Try to connect these dots

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There seems to be a growing disconnect between the various realities of the modern Thoroughbred industry.

At one extreme, champagne corks were popping and there was dancing in the country roads around Lexington in the wake of the 14-day Keeneland September sale extravaganza, during which nearly $325 million worth of yearlings were sold, and presumably bought. For those who enjoyed a slice of this high-calorie pie, congratulations.

There is monumental risk in raising a fragile, temperamental young Thoroughbred and bringing it successfully to market. Each stage in the process is fraught with potential disaster, from the period of gestation to the final van ride to the sales ring. After the trauma of the mare reproductive loss syndrome three years ago, Kentucky's breeders - both large and small - probably deserved the rewards of a bountiful sale.

At the same time, there is no less of a risk taken by the men and women who must eventually ride these million-dollar babies in competition. When something goes wrong, they must rely on either individual insurance coverage or personal savings to see them through.

In one sense, it is inspiring to hear that all-star jockeys such as John Velazquez, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, and Jerry Bailey are contributing a 5 percent portion of their Breeders' Cup Day earnings to a fund established for the ongoing medical expenses of the paralyzed young rider Gary Birzer, who was injured at Mountaineer Park last July. Birzer's hospital and rehab bills have passed the $500,000 mark.

Then again, what kind of professional American sport would require its players to take up a collection when one of their own is hurt in the line of duty? It is hard to believe a similar tale coming from professional baseball, basketball, football or even hockey. Just as it is the moral obligation of an army to care for its wounded, a professional sport must take the responsibility for damage done to any player who goes down during competition.

In California, it is the racetrack operators who are struggling. Short of passing the hat, they have for the last several months attached their hopes to the passage of Proposition 68. If passed, the initiative could - in a roundabout way - allow designated racetracks and card clubs to install slot machines, with the promise of turning places like Hollywood Park and Santa Anita into mega-versions of the Delaware Park and Prairie Meadows models.

But now even that hope is vanishing. A report in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times indicated that the $27.7 million spent by racetracks and card rooms has failed to garner more than 33 percent in favor of the slot machine initiative in pre-election polls. As a result, the campaign could be abandoned, sending racetrack managers back to square one in their efforts to level the playing field with Indian casinos. An announcement was expected from the pro Proposition 68 coalition Wendesday afternoon.

The rest of the racing world is forgiven if there is confusion. California has three attractive, world-famous racing facilities, a healthy county fair circuit and a breeding industry that produces more than 3,500 foals a year, all of this existing in a year-round climate to die for. If the sport is floundering, then someone must explain why more than $4.2 billion was bet on California's product in fiscal 2002-03. Maybe Keeneland could hold a fund-raiser.