02/28/2008 12:00AM

Focus on steroids misses big picture


NEW YORK - Is the "help" of the federal government necessary to prevent the abuse of anabolic steroids in Thoroughbred racing?

That was the central question for the racing industry during the few minutes of attention it received Wednesday at a congressional hearing about drugs and sports. Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, was one of 14 witnesses who were asked to testify before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

This is not the same committee that has been grilling Roger Clemens and others about steroid use in baseball. That is the work of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Each committee thinks it should have sole jurisdiction over the topic and is unhappy each time the other gets headlines. It seemed more than coincidental that news of Wednesday's commerce and trade hearings was overshadowed by the release the same day of a recommendation by the oversight panel that the Justice Department further investigate the truthfulness of Clemens's most recent testimony.

This competition for time in the spotlight has nothing to do with the need for federal legislation but everything to do with why there are congressional hearings going on at all. Pontificating about sports and steroids, and repeatedly asking league officials about the effects of drug scandals on the psyche of children, is the quickest way for a congressman to transcend C-SPAN coverage and get his name and face into the national news.

Steroids have become an issue in racing only because of baseball. They are not the sport's most serious drug problem, and their use in racing and on racehorses is entirely different than with humans. Even under the model rules proposed by the Racing and Medication Consortium, four therapeutic steroids still could be used on horses up until 30 days before a race. Also, steroids are currently illegal in only two minor racing states, so there is no issue of past legal wrongdoing as there is in other sports.

Still, it is sort of a happy coincidence that racing has gotten dragged into this process, because it is prompting an overdue implementation of steroid bans that are now likely to be in place over the next year. There is the usual foot-dragging by some horsemen's groups, and some legitimate concerns about testing methods and withdrawal times, but the industry has actually come together more quickly on this issue than on most medication concerns. As Waldrop told the committee, no segment of the industry is arguing against regulation, only over its details.

As most of the other witnesses said Wednesday, it would be folly to come up with a one-size-fits-all national rule about steroids for all human sports. Adding horses to the mix would be even more futile. Absent such a rule, Congress's only other remedy for racing would be to amend the Interstate Horse Racing Act to prevent simulcasting to or from tracks that do not adopt steroid bans. Realistic or not, this is not a bad threat to have hanging out there should some states be recalcitrant about signing on.

If Congress really wanted to help racing solve its drug problems, it might focus not on steroids but on funding. The sport's biggest issue with medication is not a lack of consensus or technology but a lack of money for testing. According to Scott Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, racing spends no more on testing than it did 20 years ago, which effectively is a massive decrease in spending considering both inflation and the increased cost of more sophisticated tests that have been developed.

Mandating that states keep less of their racing proceeds for their treasuries and spend more on protecting consumers seems a far better use of taxpayer dollars than repeatedly dragging athletes and commissioners in front of congressional subcommittees - even if it's less likely to make the six o'clock news.

For Curlin race, web trumped TV

If you live in New York and were home Thursday, tough luck if you wanted to see the reigning Horse of the Year make his first start of 2008. Curlin's 2 1/4-length victory in the Jaguar Trophy at Nad Al Sheba was shown live on HRTV, which is not available here or in most cable markets. The New York Racing Association, whose simulcast signal is carried on basic cable in most of the state, did not show a partial replay until 3:04 p.m., nearly three hours after the race. The Television Games Network, widely available on cable, was restricted to its second-tier winter lineup of Aqueduct, Tampa, and Turfway.

Turns out the best and quickest way to see Curlin was on the Internet: The excellent site at had the full Jaguar Trophy replay up within minutes of the race, along with every other race run in Dubai since last November. You don't have to register, open an account, or buy anything to watch them. The site is an invaluable resource and something American racing should emulate.