Horses in Kentucky Derby will be closely monitored for drugs

Updated: April 26, 2008, 12:01 AM ET
Associated Press

AP Sports Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When 20 of the best 3-year-old horses line up for this year's Kentucky Derby, they will be among the most closely monitored athletes on the planet.

From state trooper bodyguards watching their every move to a probable drug test in the days before the race -- as well as a visit to the testing barn for the top four finishers and a randomly selected also-ran afterward -- the entrants will spend four days under the sort of scrutiny that would make Barry Bonds blanche.

The attention is part of a growing initiative to crack down on the use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, an effort that finally appears to be gaining momentum in an industry usually reluctant to change.

Last year for the first time, all 20 Derby horses were subjected to -- and passed -- a surprise drug test two days before the race. Kentucky Horse Racing Authority executive director Lisa Underwood said trainers should be "ready for anything" when it comes to testing this year.

Well, almost anything. The Derby horses will not be tested for steroids, but that might be about to change due to mounting pressure from forces both inside and outside the industry for racing to develop stricter drug regulations.

Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, pointed to an anonymous survey in which a series of samples from one U.S. racing jurisdiction was sent to an overseas lab for testing. The survey revealed 60 percent of the horses sampled had been administered anabolic steroids close to their racing date.

"Everybody has turned a blind eye to it," Arthur said. "There's a general perception of a permissive medication approach to U.S. racing that many people, myself being one of them, think needs to be re-evaluated."

Arthur isn't saying the horses who make their way from paddock to post for the Derby are juiced. The most successful 3-year-olds on the Derby trail are tested several times along the road to Churchill Downs.

"I'm absolutely confident those (Derby) horses are clean by the standards in Kentucky when the gate opens," Arthur said. "But the standards are different in Maryland. They're different in New York and therein lies the problem. You're running three legs of the Triple Crown under three different sets of rules. Then when they come to California for the Breeders' Cup, there'll be another set of rules."

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, founded in 2003, is trying to address the discrepancies. The RMTC wants to create uniform medication and drug testing rules nationwide.

Portions of the model rules already have been adopted in several states, including California. Kentucky is among the states expected to take similar steps by the end of the year. When the rules actually go on the books varies because of the different rule-making processes within each state.

"It's important for trainers and owners to know that the rules are going to be the same no matter where they go," Underwood said.

Maybe, but don't expect racing to be steroid free. The model rules put forth by the RMTC allow vets to administer one of four anabolic steroids considered therapeutic in nature, though the horses won't be allowed to race for at least 30 days after receiving the dosage.

Horses whose steroid levels test above the legal threshold upon their return to the track will have their performance vacated, with the trainer being fined a minimum of $500 and the owner required to return the purse for a first offense. Subsequent violations would result in stricter penalties under the guidelines put forth by the RMTC, though states are free to adjust the penalties as they see fit.

"What we don't want are horses competing under the influence of anabolic steroids," RMTC executive director Scot Waterman said. "We don't want any horses receiving any benefit while they're running the race."

Waterman said the 30-day waiting period is enough time for any performance-enhancing effect "to be long gone" by the time the horse races again, and defends the diversity of the testing, which looks for everything from stimulants to depressants to narcotics.

"In racing we test for actually a wider variety of drugs than most other major league sports," Waterman said. "Most human athletics take a narrow field of drugs. We cast a very wide net in racing."

While adopting a uniform testing and penalty standard, creating more cost-effective and accurate tests and the possible centralization of testing centers could go a long way toward better regulating drugs, it might not be enough.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), frustrated by what he felt was lack of progress, asked National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop during a congressional hearing in February if it was "time to call the federal cavalry and send it chasing into your stables with guns blazing to clean up the sport of horse racing?"

Waldrop demurred, and repeatedly has praised states for being proactive in adopting the model rules. Yet the problem goes beyond more comprehensive testing.

Trainer Nick Zito likely will have two horses in next Saturday's Derby, and he'd like to see a more aggressive approach by increasing security at race tracks.

"Until the security gets better, I think the drug testing is a good thing, but it's not the answer," he said.

It's a problem the Kentucky racing board has tried to address. Trainer Patrick Biancone was suspended for a year last October when officials found prohibited items, including cobra venom, in a search of his barn at Keeneland in Lexington.

The inspection of Biancone's barn was ordered by Underwood, but such inspections are rarely done due to a lack of resources.

"I wish we had more investigators," she said.

There will be no such problems at the Derby, where the horses will be placed on 24-hour surveillance from the time they are officially entered in the race Wednesday until they reach the paddock at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

It's all done to ensure a drug- and controversy-free day when the rest of the sports world stops and all eyes turn to the 2 biggest minutes in racing. Industry officials know fans won't make their way to the betting window if they're wondering who's juiced and who isn't.

"We do have a sport that is paid for by the fan who is placing the wager and those fans need to be confident that what they see is what they get, that (the trainers) are abiding by the rules," Arthur said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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