08/20/2001 12:00AM

Drug report a step in right direction

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WASHINGTON - When a long-awaited report on drugs and integrity in racing was released Sunday, a member of the task force preparing it offered an optimistic summary.

"The findings were very positive for the racing business," said Paul Oreffice, a New York Racing Association trustee and the former chairman of the Dow Chemical Company. "All the speculation about 'juicing' is just that - speculation."

It would be comforting if the Thoroughbred industry could indeed allay widespread suspicions that the use of illegal drugs, or "juice," is out of control. The circumstantial evidence seems so persuasive that even the most dedicated racing fans are cynical about the integrity of the game. Yet even in the wake of this detailed report from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the drug issue will remain as ambiguous and controversial as ever.

The NTRA undertook a bold initiative when it created its Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force in 1999. Outsiders might assume that this would be a noncontroversial subject - isn't everybody in favor of integrity? - but in fact it is a political minefield. There is a vocal and powerful faction, led by horsemen and veterinarians in Kentucky, that advocates the most liberal possible medication policies; Kentucky permits some drugs, the use of which would be considered a scandal almost anywhere else in the racing world. As a result, the idea of establishing uniform national medication policies was off the table for the Task Force, chaired by Jim Gallagher, a former New York racing regulator.

But the Task Force did undertake an ambitious study anyway, dubbed the Supertest Project. It collected postrace urine and blood samples from horses in 28 racing jurisdictions, samples which had been found "clean" by the racing chemists in those jurisdictions. Then it subjected them to the most sophisticated available testing techniques. It aimed to determine if the states were missing hard-to-detect illegal substances and to find out what those substances were.

These were the findings: Of 1,272 samples that were supposed to have been clean, illegal substances were found in 22. Some of these were relatively benign, such as positive tests for clenbuterol. (Many states allow a trace of clenbuterol in a horse's system; if it doesn't exceed a certain threshold, it is declared a non-finding.)

The Supertest did detect other drugs that most racing fans have never heard of: busiprone, clonidine, dextromoramide, and guanabenz among them. Some of the banned substances are used in human beings to treat high blood pressure, anxiety, and nervous

tension.

There wasn't a smoking gun in the evidence - no single superdrug that could account for suspicious performances by so many horses in so many parts of the country. The tests instead suggested the willingness of trainers and their veterinarians to try a variety of drugs intended for humans to see if they might work on Thoroughbreds.

At first glance, the incidence of missed positives seems rather small - 22 out of 1,272 samples is only 1.7 percent. However, in 2000 there were more than 493,000 starters in races at tracks in the U.S. and Canada, and if the states are missing 1.7 percent of the violations among this group, it means that more than 8,300 violations may have slipped through the cracks.

But the major concern in drug testing is that neither state chemists nor the Supertest can detect certain potent illegal treatments - and the cheaters know it. Use of EPO (erythropoietin) - the substance that has so often been abused in bicycle racing - has been rumored at American tracks for years, and there is no reliable method to identify it.

"EPO is one of a whole class of drugs on the market that are considered blood-doping agents and are hard to find," acknowledged veterinarian Scot Waterman, a director of the Task Force. "Anything occurring naturally in the body is also hard to detect." The latter category includes the drug known as ACTH.

Cheaters will continue to cheat as long as they can stay a step ahead of testing procedures. When many trainers become miracle workers almost overnight, performing feats that outshine the most legendary horsemen in history, even sensible observers must wonder if cheating is out of control. So in that sense the NTRA report didn't resolve anything.

But the Task Force did address many of the difficult administrative issues that the industry can do something about. It urged the creation of a national organization to improve drug-testing procedures. It recommended a reevaluation of current enforcement policies that can slap trainers with harsh penalties for seemingly minor infractions. And, most important, it demonstrated the willingness of the industry to face the drug issue. This report was no whitewash; it addressed the problem in an honest and serious fashion. But it is a problem for which there is no easy remedy.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post