07/14/2003 11:00PM

EPO test may level playing field


TUSCON, Ariz. - With little fanfare but with much courage and huge significance, the Ontario Racing Commission and New York State Racing and Wagering Board are opening a bold new frontier in racing's fight against illegal medication.

Starting this fall, the two regulatory agencies will test horses racing in their jurisdictions for antibodies to erythropoietin - better known as EPO or Epogen - and its derivative darbepoietin, and they will bar all horses who show such antibodies from racing in their jurisdictions until they test clear of administration of the substances.

The new weapon is not perfect. The tests could affect a trainer or owner who claimed a treated horse, but it protects the honest ones - and the public - by removing from competition horses who are racing with the help of illegal substances in their systems. It helps level the tilted playing field that has become trite but hugely troublesome.

Taking action against the administration of EPO and darbepoietin is characteristic of the audaciously independent Ontario commission, and refreshingly innovative and highly encouraging for the slower-moving New York board, which operates under heavy administrative and political constraints. The New York board's bold acceptance of the EPO antibody tests is a heartening departure from its normally glacial pace - it took three years to resolve a 10-day suspension of Angel Cordero in 1989 and five years to resolve a 1994 case concerning D. Wayne Lukas and Flanders. That inability to make quick decisions was demonstrated again in recent weeks when the board delayed until fall - presumably because of political pressure from Albany - the New York Racing Association's request to lower takeout for the public.

Past sins aside, kudos are due the New York board for its EPO decision, which is a vote of strong confidence in Dr. George Maylin of Cornell University. Maylin has been a beacon in the fight against illegal medication, and it was his work with Dr. Ken McKeever of Rutgers that developed the EPO antibody test as a first positive step in battling abuse of the blood-enhancing substance.

The test is based on the premise that human-engineered EPO creates antibodies in the horse that build up over time. EPO is not given, at least initially, as an immediate prerace boost. It normally is administered weeks before a race and gradually thereafter. Besides affecting performance, it can be dangerous to the horse. Until racing and its participants and regulators face up to the need for out-of-competition testing, the antibody test is a logical approach to weed out illegally treated horses. Positive reactions to repeated previous EPO injections will be checked by mass spectrometry.

It will be challenged, of course, by those bosom companions of edge-seeking trainers: the lawyers who have become as prevalent as brace bandages or blinker hoods in today's racing world.

Stanley Sadinsky, the pioneering chairman of the Ontario commission who also is a professor of law at Queen's University, has accepted that challenge with firmness and resolve. He has imposed $350,000 fines and 10-year suspensions in Ontario, with guts and legal savvy. Sadly for racing, he is leaving the commission to become director of Ontario's lottery commission, which controls the vastly profitable slots at 16 Ontario racetracks, but he leaves a strong enforcer in Executive Director Jean Major.

Sadinsky is a close friend of Mike Hoblock, the chairman of the New York board, and that friendship and professional bond has resulted in the closely coordinated decision to move forward with the EPO tests. Hoblock's background was politics, but he has demonstrated a love and respect for racing, and a knowledge of it, that has vaulted him to the upper ranks of regulatory leaders. His latest decision on EPO will add to the respect and high regard in which he is held.

Most encouraging of all, further tests for other prohibited substances are under development. That fact, and the Ontario and New York actions, paint a brighter horizon on an otherwise hazy summer sky.