02/24/2004 12:00AM

Bonnie paper lassos medication issue

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Medication reform in North American racing is just stumbling out of the starting gate to chase the small but dangerous field of loose horses who are tearing up the track for everyone else. It is far behind, and unless someone starts listening to Edward "Ned" Bonnie, the illegal medication mess will remain far out in front of those hoping to rein it in.

Bonnie is a Yale-educated lawyer, a horseman all his life, who rides, trains, and sells hunters, jumpers, and steeplechasers. He knows Thoroughbred racing thoroughly and is a respected authority who has acted as counsel on medication issues for owners, trainers, veterinarians, jockeys, feed men, and blacksmiths. He knows as much about the illegal medication issue as anyone in racing.

At next week's second joint annual meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America in Florida, Bonnie will discuss a position paper he has prepared that may be the most significant ever written on the medication issue.

He calls it "Do We Really Want to Stop the Misuse of Drugs in Horses?" and it has received far too little notice from the sport.

Bonnie says that everyone in racing gives a resounding "yes" to the question, but either we don't really mean it, or we don't know how to do it.

He's right on both counts.

The principal obstacle to adequate drug testing in this country is financing, and Bonnie's solution is to assess a per-horse, per-start charge in every race, to be used exclusively for research. It could raise the millions needed for testing.

This basic premise has been given short shrift so far by all concerned, but unless it is adopted, Bonnie is correct in his assessment that the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the racing industry itself are headed toward failure once again on the medication issue. He also is correct that a financial effort has to operate on a parallel course with uniform rule efforts.

Bonnie will be joined on the TRA/HTA panel by Dr. Scot Waterman, the young veterinarian who has done a brilliant job of keeping the disparate members of the consortium together and on target, and Dr. George Maylin, one of the world's foremost researchers on illegal medication and the recipient of this year's Messenger Award, the harness association highest honor.

Ned Bonnie writes, "Again and again the industry is reminded of its failure to stop the misuse of drugs in horses, by newspaper headlines, speeches at The Jockey Club Round Table, or position papers delivered by representatives of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and others. The most recent efforts to address these issues came from the now-defunct National Thoroughbred Racing Association Task Force on Drug Testing and Integrity. One of its parting recommendations, as it ceased doing business in 2002, was that research on the identification of drugs currently being used to affect the performance of horses in races, and for which there are no tests, is lacking, and that owners of race horses should be asked to support a fund which would close the financial gap between dreams and reality."

That call remains unheeded, and as Bonnie points out, "We have not been successful in preventing the misuse of drugs in horses." His question looms large: "Do we really want to?

Recent events make the question particularly relevant.

I'm not sure how you support something and oppose its basic tenets and ideas at the same time, but the national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has figured out a way.

While it says it supports the Racing and Medication Testing Consortium, it opposes the consortium's stand on medication.

The consortium's publicly announced position is that drugs should be scientifically proved safe and effective before their use is permitted in horses.

The horsemen's association has adopted a position that says, in effect, if science has not gotten around to proving this stuff is dangerous, our members should go right on using it.

To me, those are irreconcilable differences.

Bonnie's position paper and a transcript of the Bonnie-Waterman-Maylin discussion at the TRA/HTA meeting next week should be required reading for all who are concerned about illegal medication in racing.