01/08/2007 1:00AM

Drastic proposal for a big problem


TUCSON, Ariz. - As 2006 fades in its waning hours and a new year arrives, here is where horse racing in North America finds itself:

* The leading Thoroughbred trainer in money won, Todd Pletcher, is under suspension for illegal medication.

* The leading Thoroughbred trainer in races won, Scott Lake, is under suspension for illegal medication.

* The leading harness racing trainer in North America in races won, Mickey Burke, who also is second in money won, faces suspension if a split sample confirms a finding of an illegal Class 2 medication, lidocaine, in one of his horses.

* The leading harness racing trainer in Canada, Casie Coleman, has been ordered to race her 50-horse stable out of Woodbine's retention barn.

On those astonishingly depressing notes, welcome to 2007.

Barry Irwin, of Team Valor, a longtime vocal foe of illegal medication, wrote about the plight of racing in a recent hard-hitting article in The Blood-Horse. He stated some strong beliefs and proposed some draconian solutions. He also overstated at least one charge.

Irwin contends - and few can argue - that to maintain or grow betting handle, both interest and confidence are required. Neither requirement, Irwin feels, is being met today. He believes the game has lost some of its biggest bettors because of this, and says bluntly that others "have had to adjust their handicapping to include the likelihood that certain trainers take an edge."

He wrote: "In America, not one state racing jurisdiction or racing association or owners or horsemen's group is fully dedicated to firmly establishing the integrity of racing. Only lip service, to a greater or lesser degree, is practiced, because ensuring the integrity of racing is costly and not considered a priority, even though without it, survival of the sport is fragile. The message has been intellectualized but not internalized."

That's a mighty big blanket indictment, with portions hard to refute but others exaggerated.

Irwin did say "In America," presumably meaning the United States, for in Canada the Ontario Racing Commission, in recent weeks, has handed out three 10-year suspensions and $100,000 fines for illegal possession and use of drugs. That is a very big bite, involving teeth, not lips. It certainly is not lip service.

In the U.S. as well, several state racing commissions, including Indiana's and the harness racing commission in Delaware, have shown signs of rigid backbone. The Delaware group is moving toward out-of-competition testing, a vital weapon in this battle.

Facing reality, as Irwin does and has for years, is helpful, but as a realist he understands that merely lamenting the situation does not provide a solution. So he offers one, so stiff and stringent that it is doubtful any U.S. racing commission could or would muster the courage to tackle what it entails, or even approach it.

Irwin wants to require veterinarians to buy their medications directly from racing associations, and inform the state vet which horses will receive them and for what purpose. "Anything in the horse's system that did not come from the medicine chest of the track would result in harsh penalties for both the vet and the trainer," he wrote.

A very loud "whoa" can be heard across the land on that one, but provocateurs often lead to reform. It is refreshing, at the very least, to hear a longtime horseman speak out so forcefully on the issue. His proposal would make an extremely interesting experiment.

Barry Irwin has another thought that deserves attention. He claims that racetracks and regulators are "utterly convinced" that if trainers are banned, a loss of horses and business would result. Neither premise may be true, but Irwin is dead on target when he says, "First of all, few if any trainers promoted the clients they have. Owners find trainers, not vice versa."

They do, indeed, and some seem to seek those whose reputations for getting quick results exceed their reputations for integrity. Owners know, or should know, how to separate the two and make the distinction.

That, in 2007 and far beyond, is where the solution to the medication problem ultimately lies.