11/15/2001 1:00AM

Ecstasy-like drug found


NEW YORK - Massachusetts stewards have suspended a trainer for 60 days after a horse tested positive for benzylpiperazine, which the Drug Enforcement Administration says acts like a powerful central nervous stimulant.

The case is drawing attention from regulators because the drug has not previously been found in racehorses and because of the way it was marketed by a Canadian company, Gate2wire Solutions, an Internet supplier of horse medications. The drug made headlines in early 2000 in the U.S. and Switzerland as an alternative to Ecstasy, or MDMA, a mildly hallucinogenic stimulant popular among teenagers and on the club scene.

The suspended trainer, Tammi Piermarini, said she did not know benzylpiperazine was prohibited. Piermarini, a former jockey who took out her trainer's license this year, was suspended on Tuesday by Suffolk Downs stewards through Jan. 10, after stewards ruled that the drug acted as a central nervous stimulant that could have a significant impact on a horse's performance.

The stewards issued the maximum penalty allowed under state law. The case has been referred to the Massachusetts State Racing Commission, which can lengthen the suspension to one to five years.

Regulators in New Hampshire said Thursday that four horses trained by Piermarini also tested positive for benzylpiperazine after races in early September at Rockingham Park. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.

"At this point we're trying to find out just what the drug is," said Paul Kelley, the director of the New Hampshire Pari-Mutuel Commission.

Benzylpiperazine is not classified by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, but according to the DEA, it acts like a stimulant similar to methamphetamine. The drug produces increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature by acting on the central nervous system.

Jim Gallagher, the executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's drug-testing task force, said Thursday that the use of benzylpiperazine by people was becoming more common and that it was logical to believe that its use would spill over into racing.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there are other positives called," Gallagher said.

Piermarini's husband, John, said on Thursday that the couple bought the drug, called Broncho BZP and sold by Gate2Wire, in a powder form. They sprinkled a three-teaspoon dose over the food of any of their horses with breathing problems. The powder was used more than 48 hours before a race, John Piermarini said.

"My wife was looking for something other than clenbuterol, because people had been having so much trouble with that," Piermarini said. "This was supposed to work just like that." Piermarini said that the couple planned to fight the suspension.

A description of Broncho BZP taken from the Gate2Wire website said the drug triggered the release of epinephrine, or adrenaline. Epinephrine, which is produced naturally in times of stress or fear, is considered a Class 2 RCI drug when administered to a horse.

Dale Kerr, the owner of Gate2Wire, said Thursday that the company has stopped selling Broncho BZP because of the positives. Kerr said he had been selling the drug as a bronchial dilator since he started the company in October 2000.

Kerr said perceptions that the drug was related to powerful stimulants, or methamphetamines, were inaccurate.

"If it's closely related to methamphetamines, then why hasn't it been scheduled?" Kerr said, referring to regulations that restrict the import and use of drugs that are illegal or considered dangerous.

Citing the "absolute insurer rule," which holds trainers responsible for their horses no matter what the circumstances, Kelley of the New Hampshire racing commission said that commissioners were not concerned about the drug's legality.

"That's something maybe for the DEA to look into," Kelley said. "We have the absolute insurer rule, and that's what we'll use."