10/23/2001 12:00AM

Drug policy-makers may be taking 5:15 to nowhere


TUCSON, Ariz. - Everyone is climbing aboard the Uniform Medication Rules Express, but two problems loom that can derail the trip.

There is no engineer in the cab, and no wheels on the train.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association wants better standardized testing.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners thinks it is high time for the industry to get together on medication rules, and that veterinarians can and should lead the way. They hope to get a leg up on doing it at the Racing Symposium in Tucson in December.

The Horsemen's Protective and Benevolent Association is suggesting its own rules for the country, saying "they're our horses and we should set the rules," which is somewhat akin to motorists saying, "they're our cars and we should set the speed limits."

The driving force however, is the Association of Racing Commissioners International, whose members determine the rules in the state or province where you race.

Regardless of what the NTRA and AAEP and HBPA decide to do, the commissioners are the ladies and gentlemen who have to get it done. There is a new man in charge, young and bright and glib and smooth. His name is Lonny Powell, and he has a chance to become a racing hero. If he can muster his politically appointed bosses, all of whom have clout with the governors in their home jurisdictions or they wouldn't have gotten their jobs, and inspire them to follow up and make uniform rules happen, he will be Man of the Year.

Uniform medication rules are apple pie and motherhood. No one who races horses and has suffered the vagaries of state by state silliness can be against the idea.

Uniform medication rules will allow trainers and owners to know what is legal, whether they are racing horses in Los Angeles or Louisville, New York or New Orleans. That's great stuff, but to date, no one has been able to get that done, and a lot of negotiation will be needed in Tucson to bring the various organizational plans together.

Even if accord can be reached, and even if the commissioners get courageous enough and determined enough to get their states to agree, what uniform rules will not do is solve the most grievous problem facing racing today: the inability of present tests to find illegal substances now being used regularly.

That shortcoming is the reason that all the happy pronouncements about the adequacy of testing are meaningless. It's fine to toss out figures about how fine your testing is, but if you can't find potent stuff that's out there and being used, like EPO, the testing numbers are irrelevant, and even worse, misleading. Tony Chamblin, former president of the RCI, got the organization on the road toward a solution, and NTRA joined the effort, with a major EPO research project under way under Dr. Kenneth McKeever at Rutgers University. More on that in a later column.

So is the quest for uniform testing and medication rules worth the effort?


But without adequate funding to find racing's cancer, and without a determined sport-wide effort to reach out to advanced science for new tests for the undetected illnesses plaguing the sport, the patient will remain sick.