06/28/2001 11:00PM

DRF Letters to the Editor


Officials explain California board testing stance

In his June 23 column, "The too-long arm of the law," Jay Hovdey wrote that the "job of any state racing commission is to regulate the sport by enforcing its rules and regulations upon its license holders." While we at the California Horse Racing Board disagree with many of the opinions expressed in the column, we are in complete agreement with Hovdey on this point.

The CHRB enforces the Horse Racing Law regardless of the stature of the licensee. If a postrace sample comes up positive under the rules, regulations, and policies of the CHRB, we file a complaint and allow due process to run its course.

If someone disagrees with the process, they should put their efforts into changing the law. We were much more impressed with the tenor and constructive nature of Steven Crist's comments on June 24 ("No tolerance for zero tolerance"), which took this very approach. Crist wrote: "Everyone is supposed to be on the same side of this issue. It would seem that a united and well-informed group of industry horsemen and veterinarians could sit down with the CHRB and set reasonable levels for postrace findings and agree on a more sensible baseline than zero."

During our nearly eight years with the CHRB, the board always has expressed and demonstrated a willingness to establish threshold levels for drugs. After all, it was the CHRB back in 1995 that broke new ground in this country by establishing test levels for eight therapeutic substances. We took that action based on sound scientific evidence that, at those levels in postrace urine samples, the substances are generally not accepted as having pharmacological activity that might affect athletic performance. We had hoped that the industry would follow our lead and do the research necessary to identify additional drugs for inclusion on this list, but that has not happened.

We require proper research and scientific evidence to establish threshold levels for morphine or any other drug. Mere personal opinions or anecdotal information won't do. We need scientific evidence. We want this evidence. As a matter of fact, we were encouraged to read in Hovdey's column that there is "a preponderance of scientific evidence. Toxicologists characterize the amount of drug found in Nautical Look's test as insignificant and unable to affect the performance of a thousand-pound Thoroughbred." We are eager to receive this preponderance of scientific evidence.

Hovdey also wrote that the board "is enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward morphine, even while they accept test procedures that have a built-in margin of error in the interpretation of the drug's presence." While some may interpret the strict criteria that analytical laboratories use for confirming drug positives as "a built-in margin for error," these strict criteria are agreed upon by multiple levels of analytical chemists as the appropriate minimal criteria for confirming a positive finding. It seems odd that the CHRB would be criticized for following a procedure that largely benefits licensees by establishing strict criteria for confirming positives.

Threshold levels are a national concern. In the 1990's, there were 46 findings of morphine positives reported to the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) by North American equine testing laboratories - only five of those cases in California. The average suspension in those 46 cases was 158 days. Louisiana is the only jurisdiction with a published threshold level for morphine that is greater than the amount detected in the urine of Nautical Look.

Clearly this matter requires a national forum. Until change comes about in the proper way, however, the CHRB will continue to enforce its rules and regulations as they are currently written in order to protect the public and all racing participants.

Robert H. Tourtelot, Chairman

Roy C. Wood, Jr., Executive Director

California Horse Racing Board

Is it zero tolerance or intolerance?

I am stunned at what has transpired recently in California with the absurd ruling (a 60-day license suspension and $10,000 fine) of the California Horse Racing Stewards in regards to trainer Bob Baffert.

God only knows how much irrevocable damage they did to the Thoroughbred industry. Because of this ridiculous ruling, America's leading trainer is now known to the public as someone who drugs his horses with morphine. Unlike with clenbuterol, the public is very well aware of what morphine is and what it does.

Baffert's legal team requested a stay from the chairman of the CHRB, who denied it, proudly stating, "We treat everyone the same, even a leading trainer." ("Baffert denied stay of ban," June 21.) He further noted that his policy on medication violations is consistent with that of the last two CHRB chairmen. Isn't that sort of like saying if we've been doing it wrong all these years we want to be consistent about it?

If one reads the CHRB News and Review, it is obvious the CHRB is proud that California is a zero-tolerance state in drug-testing, but is it really? If it were truly zero-tolerance on every medication tested for, almost every horse in California would be "positive" for one substance or another.

What a testing laboratory can do is utilize a certain test for a drug with limited detection abilities, such as TLC (thin layer chromatography), which tests at parts per million, rather than the parts-per-billion ELISA (enzyme linked immunoabsorbent assay) standard employed in the Baffert case.

By establishing that specific tests be used for certain drugs, they can potentially decrease their detection limits at least a hundredfold or more for certain drugs. They could then announce that they are truly zero-tolerance, i.e. they will call anything that is detected at this less-sensitive level. As you can clearly see, this is not true zero-tolerance.

California could be testing morphine with ELISA while testing cocaine with TLC and claim to be zero-tolerance on both. (Did you ever wonder how all that cocaine that used to be so readily detected in California suddenly vanished while still being detected in other states that still employ true zero-tolerance testing?)

I used to view California as being on the cutting edge of using a common-sense approach to drug testing. After all, California was the first state to publish thresholds for certain drugs and medications. It was also, I think, the first state to add mitigating circumstance to the absolute-insurer rule.

The first example of a mitigating circumstance in the CHRB Horsemen's Handbook deals with accidental or environmental contamination.

One would think that a fine of a $1,000 or so would be sufficient if one of Baffert's grooms possibly shared a poppy seed bagel with a horse, or for Baffert being unfortunate enough to have his feed supplier deliver alfalfa from a field adjacent to a field of poppies, as photographs introduced at the hearing displayed, but a 60-day license suspension is absolutely ludicrous.

The preamble to the Uniform Classification Guidelines of Foreign Substances of the Association of Racing Commissioners International states: "Practicing equine veterinarians, state veterinarians, and equine pharmacologists are available and should be consulted to explain the pharmacological effects of the drugs listed in each class prior to any decisions with respect to penalties to be imposed."

I would suggest in the future that the CHRB and its stewards should listen to such explanations from these experts with a more open mind, and advise its laboratory to test morphine by TLC.

Kent H. Stirling, Chairman,

Medication Committee

National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Agency