10/05/2004 12:00AM

Two cases of no pain, no gain

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Racing commissioners, men of stature and accomplishment sufficient to know and be known by governors, are no different than the rest of us. They come in all sizes and shapes and degrees of intelligence, and their commissions range in size from one-man rule in Michigan to the near dozen in neighboring Illinois.

Two recent interesting examples of how they think and how they act came in widely separated jurisdictions: California and Delaware.

I have watched California racing commissioners in action from the days when harness horses raced at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park to the present, and over those nearly 60 years they have lived largely in a self-constructed fantasy world that has California as the center of the universe, the pure beating heart of American racing.

They were jolted and stung recently by two separate events:

* A bitterly critical article in The Blood-Horse magazine on how justice is dispensed in California, written by freelance writer Michael G. Wagner.

* A report by the board's director of equine medicine, Dr. Ron Jensen, and individual testing conducted at Del Mar, which found that high levels of alkalizing agents introduced through stomach tubes - a process known as milkshaking - were present in 10 percent of horses tested.

California had no rule against the use of alkalizing agents, but faced with the reality of cheating and increasing discontent among horsemen at the lack of a level playing field, the board has moved quickly to close the gap, with strong internal encouragement that included sponsorship and support for the testing.

Craig Fravel, the vice president at Del Mar, said he felt it was important for the board to adopt a rule making milkshaking illegal "as soon as possible."

Pam Berg, a steward in northern California, was quoted in the Wagner article as saying, "Horsemen I've talked to think the regulatory process has become a big joke in California and they think it encourages cheating."

She was referring to the practice of deal-making, in which the executive director of the racing board adjudicates penalties for offenses, offering fines rather than suspensions, thus bypassing costly and extended litigation.

This is not necessarily a bad thing and is legal in California, but to be effective, it requires severity of penalties often seriously missing. Under proposed rules, the first offense for milkshaking carries purse forfeiture. Commissioner Jerry Moss, arguing that second milkshaking offenses should result in more severe penalties, pointed out that milkshaking, "is administered with the intent of changing the playing field, so the penalty should be quite severe. It can't happen by accident."

John Harris, who has run the California racing board as chairman, said suspensions are tough to enforce, and noted that it is not difficult for trainers to find a surrogate trainer to take their place. This happens everywhere, not just California, but it is something vigilant racing commissions can stop. They are all-powerful in their own jurisdictions, and do not hesitate to impose their will in other areas of racing.

Berg, criticizing the system she called "Let's Make a Deal," called substituting fines for suspensions "a slap on the wrist," and asked, "Who fears that?" She is not alone.

One of the most vocal advocates of strengthening rules and enforcement in California is the highly successful and respected trainer Richard Mandella, an advocate of security surveillance cameras in barns. He has them in his.

His enthusiasm for their effectiveness, other than as deterrents, is not shared by all, but surveillance cameras played a role - as did wrist slaps - in a case in Delaware that has resulted in huge public relations damage to racing.

A trainer there, Robert Kinsey, angered when a horse kicked his wife in the leg while she was grooming the horse, picked up a plastic manure shovel and repeatedly hit the horse on the head. His son punched the horse in the face. A security camera caught both acts, and someone incensed by the abuse turned over the tapes to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The tapes found their way to WPVI-TV, the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, and were aired there and elsewhere.

Harness racing commission judges in Delaware fined Kinsey $500 and suspended him 10 days, and fined his son $100. The executive director of the commission, John Wayne, called the suspension "a financial hardship," and said critics were jumping to conclusions, while "the judges were able to hear all of the facts in the case prior to making their rulings."

It would be nice if "all of the facts" that the commission thinks justify or mitigate hitting a horse on the head with a shovel were made public.

The furor over the case continues in Delaware. Wrist slaps are wrist slaps, East or West.