With more than 50,000 members across the country, the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is the most powerful political force in American racing. It ought to be an important leader in an industry that has no real national voice.

But it is not. The organization of thoroughbred owners and trainers has rarely commanded much respect from many outsiders. Now it finds itself racked by internal dissension and subjected to harsh external criticism.

Anybody who wanted to understand what makes the HBPA tick had only to attend the annual meeting of the American Horse Council in Washington two summers ago.

Representatives of all segments of the horse industry offered a multitude of suggestions about how they could ensure the integrity of the sport and improve the public's confidence in it. Then the HBPA man got up to speak, and it seemed obvious that the interests of the public had not crossed his mind. He talked solely about what everybody else should be doing to benefit the members of his organization. He showed more concern about the quality of food in backstretch cafeterias than the public's perception that the game might be crooked.

The HBPA seems to believe in the pursuit of its most narrow self-interest, and in this spirit the organization last year elected as its president Ed Flint, a militant and savvy politician. Flint made his reputation when he stopped Churchill Downs from selling other tracks the right to telecast and take bets on the Kentucky Derby, demanding that horsemen get 50 percent of the revenue.

Instead of concentrating on the fight over television rights, however, Flint has spent much of his time fighting internal battles. One of his political allies was suspended from the organization for life after voting irregularities were discovered in an HBPA election..

When the ballots for the board of directors in the Illinois division started arriving at the HBPA's headquarters in Rockville, longtime executive director Tony Chamblin quickly became suspicious of some of them. He and the HBPA's counsel, Ned Bonnie, turned over the suspected ballots to a handwriting expert, who found irregularities in some of the signatures.

The Illinois division was headed by John Kennedy, a political ally of Flint; Chamblin and Bonnie were opponents of Flint.

And so they didn't tell their new boss about their investigation until the handwriting expert had verified irregularities.

The sparks started flying in all directions. Flint was irate that Chamblin and Bonnie had refused to confide in him. Chamblin thought he was "being taken to task for exposing corruption." When the smoke had cleared, Chamblin and Bonnie had resigned, Kennedy was suspended from the HBPA for life because of the election incident and the whole organization was in turmoil.

Said Flint: "I was concerned that it be handled properly and be brought out into the open."

People in other areas of the racing industry might blithely watch the HBPA's problems and wish a pox on their house if the organization weren't so important. The HBPA has the power to influence policy in many key areas; its arguments at racing commission hearings across the country in the early 1970s ushered in the era of "permissive medication"--the legalization of Butazolidin, Lasix and other drugs.

Of course, it was the abuse of these medications by horsemen that created a vociferous antidrug backlash. The public believed these drugs were being widely misused and politicians threatened federal intervention unless the racing industry cleaned its own house.

But whenever state racing commissions tried to implement the stringent guidelines that were suggested by their national association, the HBPA fought them. "We have a series of research programs going on to study medication," Flint said. "We think it's good for the animals. We believe it is better for a vet to say that a horse needs a little something and to have him go out there in the best shape."

The pity is that the HBPA has the clout--when almost nobody else does--to bring about policy changes on a national level. But that will never happen as long as the organization's animus is so petty and its vision so narrow.