05/16/2006 12:00AM

Whitfield's good intentions off-target this time


TUCSON, Ariz. - Six-term United States Congressman Ed Whitfield is a pure Kentucky-bred. He grew up where beautiful racehorses and the lush fields they live in can make a man an idealist for life.

Whitfield also is a lawyer who attended American University's Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, an interesting and probably valuable combination in a city where wolves far outnumber horses. Idealists have been known to be eaten alive there, but Whitfield obviously knows how to survive. He is a rarity, a U.S. congressman who knows and loves horse racing, as does his lawyer wife, Connie Harriman Whitfield, vice chair of the Kentucky Racing Commission.

Ed Whitfield is a man of worthy causes, deeply intent on seeing them accomplished. A year or so ago, he worked long and arduously to save horses from the slaughterhouses of Texas and Illinois. Like many others who love horses, he found the idea of commercial killing repugnant, and it appeared he won his battle when his congressional colleagues agreed. The Department of Agriculture disagreed, and the slaughterhouses remain open.

Congressman Whitfield next was moved by the plight of jockeys.

He was unhappy when state legislators in Kentucky said no to the idea of paying for jockeys' accident insurance by raising takeout. The Kentucky legislators regarded jocks as independent contractors, not employees of trainers or owners. The jockeys long espoused that idea themselves, before their treasury was raped and ransacked by bad decisions of their own making.

Whitfield and a colleague, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, decided a good way to correct this would be to legislate insurance coverage for jockeys, by reopening and amending the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 to provide insurance through proceeds from simulcasting. If funding from the betting public is distasteful, as Kentucky state legislators decided, then take it from owners, trainers, and track operators, despite their virtually total opposition.

Last week national racing organizations representing those owners, trainers, and racetracks rose in unified protest, not against jockeys and their cause, but against tinkering with the Interstate Horse Racing Act. It is one thing to expose it to the beneficent ideas of congressmen Whitfield and Stupak. But doing that could lead into very dark and unfriendly woods.

Whitfield, chairman of the powerful House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, invited leaders of the Jockeys' Guild to testify before his committee. John Velazquez responded, a good and logical choice, the most successful of his profession. There was irony, however, for when Velazquez, whose mounts have won more than $172 million, was injured in a spill at Keeneland, it was a million-dollar track insurance policy that paid his medical bills. No federal intervention was needed then, and none is needed now. More tracks may need to step up, but that is a problem for racing to resolve, and a goal for racing to achieve.

Racing in America in the modern era has successfully resisted federal control. It accepts state control, and has not shirked self-control, and that process has led it through the evolutionary, testing times of simulcasting and gaming. It still struggles with those sea changes, and with the pressing problem of illegal chemistry, but it is striving to solve and survive those issues and others, including protecting jockeys, on its own, without opening the Pandora's box of federal intervention.

A lot of very dedicated and knowledgeable racing people worked assiduously, in Washington and elsewhere, to craft the Interstate Horse Racing Act 28 years ago. Some who were there and worked on that bill still are in racing, and they know just how carefully and skillfully that legislation was crafted, and how well it has worked. So did the late racing sage, editor, and attorney Kent Hollingsworth, who called the act, reached after 33 1/2 months of very tough haggling, "a masterpiece of negotiation."

That masterpiece is not something that should be opened and messed with at a critical time in Washington.

The Interstate Horse Racing Act currently protects racing's rights to use the Internet in those states where it is legal to do so. Dedicated work by the American Horse Council helped get that protection six years ago, and again now, written into H.R. 4777, the Goodlatte bill, being considered this week by the House Judiciary Committee. The committee is considering action that could affect, and indeed nullify, racing's ability to be competitive in a world of fast-changing technology, and racing's protection is tenuous and by no means assured.

Rep. Whitfield, who knows and likes horse racing, should listen to the voices of the industry, and realize his current quest for jockeys is not in the best or wider interests of the sport.