11/05/2007 1:00AM

Churchill targeting 'bogus' scratches with tests

EmailLOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs has announced that it will begin testing horses that it suspects have been improperly scratched with an excuse from a private veterinarian. Blood tests will be run to verify the reason for a scratch, and if the test results do not match the reason, the stewards will be alerted and "take whatever action they see fit," according to Churchill general manager Jim Gates.

Generally, an improper scratch carries a fine of at least $250.

Current Kentucky regulations allow a horse to be scratched without an excuse if eight or more horses remain in an overnight race (horses can be scratched from stakes races without excuse). But if a scratch leaves seven or fewer in a field, a written explanation from a veterinarian is required. Churchill is believed to be the first track in the country to test horses suspected of being improperly scratched.

The track has hired Dr. Nancy Davis, a former chief state veterinarian, to take blood samples on horses. Gates said that when what he called a "bogus" scratch is suspected, Davis will consult with the trainer or veterinarian of the horse and, if needed, pull a blood sample to verify what ailment or medications necessitated the scratch.

Gates said the system has been implemented to reduce scratches. He cited instances at the Churchill spring meet when scratches were accompanied by what he considered questionable documentation and that he has had off-the-record conversations with horsemen in which "they basically admitted" that they scratched without a legitimate veterinary excuse in order to shop for a better spot to run.

Field size at the 21-day Churchill fall meet is expected to average between 9.5 and 10 horses per race, among the highest in the country. But, Gates said, the track wanted to "make horsemen think twice" about scratching horses from races when they believe their horse is overmatched, or would be better off waiting for another race, when they otherwise do not have a legitimate reason for scratching.

Last week, in an e-mail, Gates notified Marty Maline of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and David Switzer of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association about the hiring of Davis, who is being paid by Churchill, and the protocol for the taking of blood samples.

Maline said: "I think everyone's a little concerned about this, because we're not quite sure of the reasons. It calls into question the integrity of trainers and veterinarians, and it looks like the process is fraught with potential problems."