09/25/2007 11:00PM

Victim of a peppermint twist

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Jack Van Berg calls it the most humiliating thing that has ever happened to him in more than 50 years as a trainer.

Van Berg's place in the game is held firm by more than 6,000 winners, three classic victories, and a plaque in the Hall of Fame, so one tends to take him seriously when he makes such a statement. Here is what happened.

On the afternoon of Sept. 3, Van Berg was putting the finishing touches on The Golden Noodle for her appearance in the $250,000 Del Mar Debutante. Van Berg was excited and ready to roll, and for good reason. In her previous start, The Golden Noodle had won the six-furlong Landaluce Stakes with a stretch punch that figured to be just the ticket going seven furlongs in the Debutante.

The next thing Van Berg knew, the California Horse Racing Board security person on duty at The Golden Noodle's stall was making a call to her superiors to inform them of something the trainer had just done. Racing official Luis Jauregui showed up and asked Van Berg to identify the substance that he had just flushed into the mouth of The Golden Needle. Van Berg was taken aback.

"I'm not going to lie to him," said Van Berg. "Got no reason to. It's peppermint glycerin, the same thing I've used to wash out the mouth of every one of six thousand, three hundred and some winners. Luis told me I couldn't do that, and that he'd have to call the stewards, but to go ahead and take her to the receiving barn."

While in the receiving barn with The Golden Noodle, Van Berg was informed by the Del Mar stewards that they had to scratch the filly from the Debutante because he had violated the rule regarding what was allowed to be given a horse on race day. Van Berg's heart hit the floor.

Van Berg said: "Anyone with any logic would say, 'Hey, Jack, you did something wrong.' And if I did, they should fine me $500 and let the filly run. She wasn't doped or hopped or nothin' else. Let her run, instead of costing the man what they did. It was the stupidest thing I ever saw."

"The man" is Montana rancher Bill Feeley, owner and breeder of The Golden Noodle. An avid hunter, Feeley headed for the Alaskan wilderness in the wake of the Debutante fiasco to take out his frustration on moose and bear. Back in civilization, he blew even bigger holes in the way the California Horse Racing Board enforces its own rules.

"I asked one of the stewards, 'Why haven't you scratched my other horses when Jack has wiped their mouth out with a little peppermint and water?' " Feeley said. "He told me, 'Our procedures for stakes are different.'

"But what difference does it make what kind of race it is? The public is betting on all the races. Don't they deserve the same protection every time they bet?"

The rule in question does not single out stakes races as being targeted for heightened enforcement. It merely works out that way because the state racing board has only enough resources to assign guards to horses running in stakes. Their mandate, apparently, is merely to observe, videotape, and make note of anything they feel is out of the ordinary.

"They had a security guard sitting there, guarding my horse, right?" Feeley noted, trying hard not to be too sarcastic. "So then what the hell was that security guard doing, letting somebody give my horse a 'foreign substance.' "

That somebody - Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg - shouldered all the responsibility for the incident. And you can be certain that The Golden Needle will be in full compliance when she runs in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday, facing Set Play, who won the Debutante in The Golden Needle's absence.

Still, Van Berg wishes that the Aug. 14 memo sent out by the racing board's equine medical director, Rick Arthur, had somehow found its way to his stable office.

The memo, headlined "Water Only on Race Day," was issued by Arthur reaffirming the heightened enforcement of California racing rule 1843.5, which outlines what you can give a horse in the 48 and 24 hours before a race. Among the allowables are bleeder medications, vitamins, electrolytes, anti-ulcer medications, anti-inflammatories and topical medications that do not contain prohibited drugs.

"Mouthwashing is very common," said Arthur, a former backstretch practitioner. "In fact, all horses should have their mouth washed out before the bit is put in their mouth. But washing them out with glycerin, or peppermint, of whatever else someone uses - they're pretty potent topical medications. These are very old products, but they dilate the mucous membranes in the nostrils quite dramatically, and they are having a pharmacological effect."

Arthur conceded that the effect can last only minutes.

"Even though it sounds trivial, and it probably doesn't make a big difference to the horse, how do we know the difference between this horse and that horse?" Arthur said.

"I feel badly for Jack and his owners," Arthur added. "And it's ironic that Jack himself has been calling for stricter enforcement of the rules. And there was another horse scratched for the same reason earlier in the meet. Some very innocent people can get caught up in these additional enforcement procedures. But eventually, hopefully, everyone will be playing by the same set of rules. That's the goal."

An admirable goal, to be sure. But for rules to be respected and obeyed, there must also be a sense of proportion and fairness in application. First place in the Debutante was worth $150,000. In the case of The Golden Noodle and the peppermint mouthwash, the punishment hardly fit the crime.