05/03/2005 12:00AM

Consortium remains racing's hope


TUCSON, Ariz. - Disaster or opportunity?

Which was it when, five days before America's greatest horse race, The New York Times ran a three-column front-page story with the headline "At the Derby, Racing is Facing Its Drug Problem"?

Some in the game shuddered, sickened by exposure of the problem. Others saw it as an opportunity.

The real question is whether the story, written by Joe Drape, left racing's glass half empty or half full. Racing itself will determine that.

Drape wrote that racing "has no national standards, the way professional sports leagues like Major League Baseball or the National Football League do." That's true, since individual states have zealously guarded their autonomy in setting rules. But it may not be true for long, and it certainly is not true to imply that the "national standards" of baseball and football have been as effective as racing's.

Horse racing's penalties, surveillance, and security far surpass the cruel joke that has served as the guidelines for drug abuse in major league baseball and professional football. The story in the Times did not dwell on that aspect of racing, however - the sport's daily drug testing, the suspensions and exclusions and video patrol and surveillance, and its constant battle against skilled and highly paid defense lawyers representing offenders. That glass was left half empty.

Drape's story did, however, discuss in some detail the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, horse racing's best hope for the future.

Relatively few in racing know or realize what Dr. Scot Waterman, the brilliant young scientist, has done for the racing industry in running the consortium. As its executive director, Waterman has brought together previously bitter rivals and competing groups, steadied them, counseled them, and formed a cohesive group that has made remarkable progress in a relatively short time. He has convinced 13 racing commissions to adopt the consortium's uniform rules, and has another 13 in the process of doing so. That accomplishment alone has Waterman well on his way to help overcome what Drape calls "the patchwork of regulatory agencies." His efforts dwarf the self-serving pronouncements of the leaders of baseball and football.

One writer not fooled by those pronouncements is Ann Killian, a columnist for California's San Jose Mercury News. In a piece last Sunday, she wrote that baseball commissioner Bud Selig "had finally figured out that he was going to go down in history as Commissioner Steroids. The man who couldn't/wouldn't/didn't address the drug problem that has ripped at the integrity of the game." Killian wrote that Selig "has suddenly found religion on the drug issue. . . by issuing the kinds of proposals and severe penalties that many people have been suggesting for a long time." Those proposals so far are just that, and still have to gain approval of the players.

As Drape's story indicated, however, the outlook for racing is much brighter in that regard. Unlike baseball's highly paid performers, horse trainers, the professionals most affected by the lack of uniform rules and an uneven playing field, are rallying to support the consortium. In increasing numbers, they are getting behind the idea of more draconian measures and uniform penalties.

To fill the glass of opportunity, trainers and owners and tracks need to support the only logical way of financing the consortium, which has largely been operating under grants, soon to expire, from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

A $5 per start assessment, with the money to go to the consortium, would get the job done. That would enable scientists working with the consortium to catch up with currently undetectable drugs and the cheaters who use them.

Referring to these cheaters, Waterman told Drape, "It's a fairly small percentage of people pushing the envelope. Most vets and most trainers are playing by the rules. But we're shooting to get rid of it all."

In that regard Joe Drape may have rendered racing a great service. In giving the issue of racing's drug problems front-page publicity in the country's most influential newspaper, he has given racing an opportunity to fill its glass now. If racing does not grasp the opportunity and push quickly for a per start assessment for the consortium, that glass will shatter.