08/09/2002 12:00AM

Equal testing for all races?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Should America's most important races be subject to greater scrutiny for improper medication than the sport's daily fare?

That thorny question is making the rounds at Saratoga these days as the industry's major players and organizations have descended on the town for this past week's yearling sales and the upcoming "Industry Week" of board meetings and conferences.

One of those meetings was among members of the Graded Stakes Committee, the panel of owners, breeders, and racing secretaries whose primary function is the annual review of which stakes races should be graded and which of those should be designated as Grade 1, 2, or 3. The GSC - which invited representatives of three industry publications to attend its meeting as observers, a refreshing ray of sunshine in a generally closed-door industry - is considering whether it should require that graded races be subject to additional drug testing and security.

This was only an introductory and exploratory discussion, and there are plenty of logistical and legal issues to be sorted through. That it was being raised at all, though, speaks to growing concern and frustration about the integrity of the game at its highest levels.

"I don't know for sure that the Graded Stakes Committee is necessarily the right group, but somebody's got to do something and it's got to start somewhere," Dell Hancock, a committee member and an owner of Claiborne Farm, said after the meeting.

When the people connected to the sport's top horses start worrying about medication, it's a reflection of uncertainty surrounding the very best races, not a newfound concern for the integrity of $5,000 claimers. When Oscar Barrera was working his magic on New York racing in the 1980's, the powers that be were largely unconcerned until Oscar stepped into their playground and almost won the Woodward with Shifty Sheik.

This is not to say that every trainer with a claiming background should be under suspicion when he comes up with a legitimate stakes horse. Owners and breeders are not immune to the same paranoia that often grips horseplayers, who often are quick to ascribe every tough beat to an inferior rival's having been given a quart of rocket fuel to wash down his oats.

Fair or not, there seems to be an unprecedented level of concern about possible medication abuse in major races, thus the discussion of additional measures in graded races. There are three ways in which the situation might be addressed if industry leaders decide that action is needed.

The first is to require that "supertests," which screen for more substances than standard post-race drug tests, be implemented. These are currently performed in Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races on the first three finishers and any beaten favorite, and the idea would be to extend this to all Grade 1 or perhaps all graded races. The tests run about $200 per horse, so the cost to implement supertests in an additional 90 Grade 1 races each year would be only a maximum of $72,000 and extending it to all graded races would run around $400,000. An expenditure of $800 per race to protect the integrity of events with an average purse more than 200 times higher should not be an insurmountable issue.

The second way, bound to be more contentious, is the idea of an eight-hour quarantine barn where horses would be sequestered before graded stakes. While some trainers think this is the most effective preventative measure, others say it would disrupt and compromise their preparation.

A third idea is to collect and freeze post-race samples indefinitely, to discourage the potential use of prohibited substances for which there are currently no effective tests.

These possibilities require debate and plenty of study. There are going to be cost issues, legal challenges, and jurisdictional problems in implementing such procedures in the various states that host graded races, all with their own existing and inconsistent medication policies.

There's also a philosophical issue over whether the sport should be operating under two different sets of rules, stricter ones for the top 1 percent of its races and looser ones for the rest. It's a tricky message to send to the public, because saying that you're going to apply additional scrutiny to some races acknowledges that there's a problem throughout the sport that you're not going to address in the majority of cases.

It may be a mixed message but there's one message that would be far worse - doing nothing at all. As Dell Hancock said, it's got to start somewhere.