12/14/2001 12:00AM

Drug use? Horsemen know

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NEW YORK - You don't have to walk too far at a racetrack to hear one or more of the following opinions:

"Medications are obviously being used that are undetectable."

"When a trainer suddenly raises his winning percentage above 30 percent for an extended period of time, something is wrong. It should be called to attention and close security and testing done for all the medications."

"Trainers and owners who have enough power and money can use any kind of medication they want."

If you guessed that these were the sounds of disgruntled horseplayers assigning blame as they tear their tickets, guess again: These comments are among the hundreds made by working, licensed trainers who responded to a survey on medication conducted by the Race Track Industry program at the University of Arizona.

Trainers, along with owners and veterinarians who received similar surveys, were not required to provide their names with their responses. Dozens, however, took the opportunity to go beyond the basic questions and write extended comments. While some sentiments can be attributed to professional jealousy or paranoia, there are many reasoned and measured responses with the common theme that illegal medication is an ongoing problem at every level of the game.

Among the trainers, 73 percent thought that there is a problem with medication, and 64 percent of those characterized the problem as moderate or severe. A constant theme was perceived inequity between trainers of different income or status levels.

"If a trainer is a 'big name,' everyone is looking to absolve them of responsibility," said one respondent. "There is always a lead time when trainers, usually big trainers, get away with using 'new' drugs that do not show up in the tests. When they are caught, do they get a serious penalty? The news media always runs to their defense - how about being concerned about the trainers running second and third and fourth to these medicated horses? It's always said, 'Well they are a really successful trainer, why would they cheat?' - well, maybe that's how they got successful."

"If you notice on big days," wrote another trainer, "like Breeders' Cup Day in New York the NYRA posted guards at all the barns for the entire day and if you noticed the top trainers who usually do well, their horses did very poorly. The problem is this can not be done on a daily basis (cost too much). Therefore there can never be a level playing field in racing."

Owners were even more concerned as a group, with 78 percent saying there is a medication problem and 94 percent of those characterizing the problem as moderate or severe rather than slight.

"It's obvious that some stables are using illegal drugs," wrote one owner. "When trainers win at a 30 percent clip, claim horses for 5-15K and routinely win allowance races with them, it makes the playing field very uneven. It also chases the honest owners out of the game."

"Is there a drug problem in NY - you bet there is!" said another owner, who said he had led the circuit in races won more than once. "Since Lasix has been allowed, claiming horses is a nightmare . . . Lasix is not the problem, it's what it hides and what is not tested. There is way too much painkillers (not Bute) and hormones used today. Eighty percent of what I claim falls apart within a month . . . When a vet says you can't win unless you pay $700 per horse per month, something is very, very wrong. I only hope something will be done before I lose everything."

A few things can be done. A giant first step would be uniform national medication rules, consistent from state to state. No other sport operates amid such inconsistency, and many medication issues and problems are simply the result of conflicting rules depending on whether you run your horse at Penn National or The Meadowlands.

The second, to be incorporated into the first, is industrywide agreement of what constitutes a true positive finding. Testing technology is so advanced that microscopic findings below the level of pharmacological effectiveness are being flagged as crimes rather than incidental environmental contamination. Surely the academics can agree on the difference and a state such as California can abandon its so-called "zero tolerance" standard.

Perhaps the best thing the rest of the industry could do is simply admit that there is a problem instead of reflexively feigning surprise when fans and the news media suggest that there might be. The quotations above came not from frustrated bettors or uninformed reporters but from owners and trainers - the closest you can get to the horse's mouth.