06/12/2008 11:00PM

A door better left unopened

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NEW YORK - Does the United States House of Representatives really need to be spending its time and our money holding hearings on the state of Thoroughbred racing and breeding?

Whether it does or not, hearings entitled "Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns" will commence Thursday morning in Washington, when more than a dozen prominent figures in racing have been called to testify before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. The witness list ranges from the heads of trade groups to veterinary experts to trainer Rick Dutrow, who is 5-2 on the morning line to address at least one congressman as "babe."

The subcommittee's invitation letters and requests for data from various racing organizations say that the impetus for the hearings is "public alarm" over the breakdowns of Eight Belles and Barbaro, but it's 2-5 that the dominant topic of conversation is going to be anabolic steroids. That topic is a proven ratings-grabber, as proven by the baseball hearings, despite its utter irrelevance to racing breakdowns or the sport's more serious medication issues.

American racehorses have been openly and legally treated with anabolic steroids for at least half a century to combat anemia and promote appetite and weight gain. A friendly looking can of Equipoise has been a staple of American tack rooms for decades. It is likely that dozens of Hall of Fame trainers have administered steroids to dozens of Hall of Fame horses, and while some people have questioned whether they were being used too routinely over the years, there was no outcry and little concern over them until the word steroids became synonymous with an entirely different, surreptitious and illegal use of them by humans in other sports.

One of the things the subcommittee will hear is that there is virtually no scientific research either supporting or indicting the widespread use of steroids in racing. Every veterinary expert has dismissed the notion that Big Brown's Belmont Stakes flop could have been a result of his reportedly having his monthly Winstrol shot withheld on May 15, and no one considers steroids a performance-enhancing "hop" that can be turned on and off.

Still, more than a year before Eight Belles and subcommittee hearings, racing was already moving toward a partial ban of steroids, through the promulgation of a model rule that has already been passed in 10 states. The question now is whether that rule, which permits the use of four steroids under certain conditions, will be enough to satisfy politicians who will draw an imaginary line from steroids to Eight Belles and Barbaro.

This can cut both ways for racing. While a steroids ban for horses may be neither intellectually valid nor scientifically sound, it is probably inevitable in the current climate and may be a small price to pay for avoiding federal intrusion into racing matters that politicians are even less qualified to address: track surfaces, bloodlines, and 2-year-old racing.

The most dangerous thing about these hearings is that they open the door to far more pernicious mandates than a ban on a non-essential drug. Rep. Ed Whitfield, Republican of Kentucky, the ranking subcommittee member and driving force behind the hearings, has reached out to racing officials and journalists to gather information. He is married to Connie Harriman-Whitfield, the vice chair of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority and a senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has launched a petition drive to ban all racing of 2-year-olds.

"These horses must start racing at the tender age of two years, and that's well before their skeletal systems are sturdy enough to endure the pounding from the rigors of the race track," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society.

That's the sort of sentiment about tender baby horses that sounds sweet and noble until you consider that it is dangerously at odds with veterinary consensus and common sense. Research indicates that horses who race as 2-year-olds, subjecting those developing skeletal systems to beneficially formative stress, break down less often than horses who do not race until they are older. Yet Pacelle advocates no racing until 3 and making the Triple Crown a series for 4-year-olds.

We're likely to hear more about that during these hearings, as well as from those who would alternatively wreck the Triple Crown by dissociating it from its modern history and turning it into an eight- or 12-week affair. A question for those who support this, including some panicky industry stakeholders who support the idea as a cosmetic gesture: How exactly would Eight Belles not have suffered the same terrible accident after the Kentucky Derby had the Preakness been run an additional week or two later?