Updated on 09/17/2011 10:08PM

Doctor has cure, but it costs


Tucson, Ariz. - It was treated as routine news last Sunday when it was announced at The Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, but it was not routine. It was the most important and significant racing story of this year, or any recent year.

The creation of an equine drug research institute is monumental news, not because of the event, but because of the man who will run it.

Dr. Don Catlin is not well known in horse racing, but he will be. He is a medical doctor and a world-respected giant in his field, molecular pharmacology. Type his name in a Google search and you will find 50,200 references to him and his work.

Dr. Catlin's official title is professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the UCLA medical school in Los Angeles. Twenty-three years ago he founded the UCLA Olympic Laboratory there, which designs Olympic testing. His staff now represents more a century of experience in drug testing. More recently, Catlin founded the Anti-Doping Research Institute. Last spring, he broke the Balco case, finding the steroid THG.

Now, instead of retiring at age 67, as he had considered, he is willing to bring his immense talents to horse racing.

He is confident that he and his scientific team can outrun the drug cheaters, but only if they are given the money to do so. It was a $140,000 grant that enabled him to break the Balco case after a coach provided him with a loaded syringe. It took Catlin's lab only one month to identify the substance and another six weeks to develop a test for it.

He can do the same thing for all the rocket fuel now being used on the backstretches of North America, and although he recently said he was tired of the long fight, Nick Nicholson and Ogden Phipps and Scot Waterman and others have restored his zest for battle. His opponents this time: the cheaters in horse racing, and what they are using.

It will take millions of dollars to back his work, but racing had better drop a lot of its other frills and foibles and spend the money.

Catlin's presence and work could end racing's Grand Charade, the public parade of meaningless statistics dragged out to cover the industry's ignorance of how to deal with illegal drugs. That repetition of phony numbers insistently crows about a minuscule incidence of positive tests. It is garbage.

If there are no tests for illegal substances being used regularly in racing today, obviously there will be no positives for them.

All of this could end if racing bites the bullet, and tracks and horsemen and racing organizations dig deep to support Catlin and his work. Racing finally has discovered the right man to run the show.

Catlin was telling a reporter recently that cheaters "twiddling around with molecules" represent a whole new chapter in drug deception. "It's telling us after 20 years of fighting the battle," he said, "there are still people out there who are bound and determined to figure out ways to beat the system."

The reporter asked him, "If there's going to be more THG's" - Catlin's Balco discovery - "can they always outrun you?"

"No," he said quickly and firmly.

"No?" the reporter repeated, skeptical.

"No," Catlin told him. "We can outrun them any day, but we need the tools. We can make the sport clean."

He was talking about baseball and track and field, but now he is talking about horse racing, and he believes what he said. He thinks the current model of "run 'em down, chase 'em, find 'em, assume they are guilty, drag them into testing," is futile. "They still get away with stuff," he says, "and I maintain they can get away with stuff with everybody looking right at them" under the present system.

Catlin says today's testers are not necessarily fooled by altered drugs, but they have to worry about lawsuits and proving a positive if it goes to court. He knows they do not have the equipment, costing millions, to do the job right, and he firmly believes that higher science - his higher science - can break that vicious cycle.

Discussing drugging in general, Catlin said recently: "Don't be fooled by phony stats. Drug use is higher than ever. They are just not getting caught."

They can be caught, and racing has taken its first big step to do it. If racing fails to fund this venture and the man who can save it from the thieves, its credibility will fall with its failure, and it will have no one to blame but itself.