01/09/2007 12:00AM

California moves forward on stricter drug penalties

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The medication committee of the California Horse Racing Board on Tuesday recommended that California adopt stricter penalties for drug infractions, enforce a 28-day withdrawal period for the popular bronchodilator clenbuterol, and begin to draft rules banning the use of anabolic steroids.

The rules providing for stricter penalties and the rule requiring a 28-day withdrawal period for clenbuterol are expected to be considered by the full board on Jan. 23, at the board's next scheduled meeting. The ban on anabolic steroids will require several more meetings of the medication committee before a rule can be approved, board officials said.

The decisions by the medication committee represent an aggressive crackdown on illegal medication use in the state. Most of the recommendations approved on Tuesday were modeled on work done by a national group, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which drafted similar penalties a year ago with the recommendation that they be adopted by racing commissions.

Richard Shapiro, the chairman of the racing board and a member of the medication committee, said late Tuesday after the meeting that state racing commissions are battling perception problems because of a lack of hard-hitting penalties for medication infractions.

"These new rules don't mean that I believe we're out of whack with the rest of the country or that drug abuse is rampant in California," Shapiro said. "But all the racing states throughout the country need to lay down the law so that this sport is not constantly under the specter of suspicion."

Shapiro also said the new rules would protect horses and would improve bettors' confidence in the sport.

The penalties, which were discussed Tuesday for 2 1/2 hours, would increase fines and suspensions for trainers for most medication violations, especially for repeat violations of the same class of drug. In addition, the penalties would extend in some cases to owners, requiring a horse who tests positive to be placed on a veterinarian's list for up to six months before the horse could be entered again. The new penalties would also allow for fines and suspensions to veterinarians that administer illegal drugs.

The rules also provide for both "mitigating" and "aggravating" circumstances when deciding penalties for drug positives. The use of either of the factors could give stewards and racing commissions wide leeway in determining the penalty for a specific drug positive.

Shapiro said that in most cases trainers will be considered guilty of administering a drug in violation of the rule in the event of a positive unless the trainer can present evidence that would fall under the "mitigating circumstances" heading.

"The burden of proof is on the trainer to prove that there is a mitigating factor for why the horse tested positive," Shapiro said.

The new 28-day withdrawal period for clenbuterol would effectively ban the use of clenbuterol in all but therapeutic cases, since a horse could not start in a race within four weeks of receiving a dose of the drug. Clenbuterol, which has steroidal properties when used regularly, is one of the more popular drugs in racing, though it is illegal to administer on race day in every racing jurisdiction.

"My conclusion is that clenbuterol is used too much for non-therapeutic purposes," Shapiro said.

The new rules were drafted in consultation with the California racing board's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, who is a member of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. Recently, the consortium called on racing commissions to ban anabolic steroids, which are in widespread use in Thoroughbred racing. With the exception of Iowa, no state has any prohibitions on the use of steroids, though they are illegal to administer in every other racing country in the world.

The medication committee on Tuesday did not formally recommend a ban on anabolic steroids, according to a racing board spokesman, Mike Marten, but instead directed Dr. Arthur to begin consultations with the state's testing laboratory to determine how to enforce the prohibition.

"That being said, make no mistake, this committee voted to abolish anabolic steroids in California," Marten said.

Any ban on the drugs would not begin to be enforced for at least several months, Marten said, because of the potential for the drugs to linger in a horse's system.

The committee also discussed a recommendation to prohibit a horse from receiving shock-wave therapy within 30 days of a race.