08/02/2004 11:00PM

Get to root of the matter

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It is generally accepted - among barbers, stylists and forensic toxicologists - that the average growth rate of hair on the human head is approximately a half-inch per month.

It also has been proven - although barbers and stylists don't really care - that a shaft of human hair can store evidence of chemical substances that have been present in the bloodstream during the growth of that particular hair crop. An inch and a half of hair, clipped at the surface of the scalp, can reveal drug ingestion over the most recent three months.

Chemical substances also can be detected in hair samples from other parts of the body - and here barbers and stylists draw the line - such as the underarms, the chest, and the area primly defined as the "pubic region." Or, as the lads from Monty Python might say, the naughty bits.

It was with a great grimness of purpose that the three Del Mar stewards conducted their eight hours of hearings last week into the matter of Patrick Valenzuela's appeal of a suspension of his jockeys' license over his failure to provide enough hair to conduct a viable drug screening. After all, a man's livelihood was at stake, not to mention the integrity of the licensing and oversight process of the California Horse Racing Board.

In its wisdom, that same racing board last May 26 issued an order requiring Valenzuela "to submit to hair follicle testing . . . upon the request of the Board or its designee, with or without probable cause," once he was allowed to return to riding on July 1.

Valenzuela already was required to deliver urine specimens on demand. It was his failure to submit to a urine test last Jan. 22 that led to his most recent suspension. Presumably, the commissioners decided that an extra layer of testing was needed to monitor Valenzuela, who described himself under oath last week as "a recovering alcoholic/addict" who has been sober since "Feb. 15, 2000."

On July 2, one day after returning to work, Valenzuela was found to be in noncompliance with his contract when he was not able to produce a testable hair sample. He had shaved, almost everywhere.

In the strictest sense, "hair follicle" testing is a bit of a misnomer. As every beauty college graduate knows, the follicle is the nourishing sac from which the hair shaft grows, so it is actually the product of the follicle that is being tested. In the case of male pattern baldness, it is the follicles that have failed.

Follicles rarely fail under the arms or below the belt, a reality that gives those conducting drug tests an alternate source of testable hair - unless a razor beats them to it. A mere half-inch or so of hair from Valenzuela on July 2 would have verified his sworn testimony that he had not used any drugs during the period of his most recent suspension in June.

The stewards' decision is expected some time later this week. At the end of the day, they will need to decide what is fair - fair to Patrick Valenzuela, fair to other riders who must play by the same rules, and fair to best interests of a highly regulated sport. Chances are, no matter how they rule, the case will end up in civil court.

By now, a lot of people in racing are wondering if Valenzuela is worth the trouble. Is the ongoing participation of this particular individual in Thoroughbred racing important enough invest the taxpayer-funded time, talent, and resources of senior racing officials, investigators, racing board staff, commissioners, and court stenographers, not to mention the involvement of the office of the California attorney general through a series of deputy attorneys general assigned to represent the interests of the state?

The answer is yes. Absolutely and forever yes.

Jockeys are licensed to engage in a perilous endeavor. As such, they must abide by higher standards of behavior and performance than the average racetrack licensee. Still, those standards must be able to withstand all reasonable legal challenges, otherwise the governing authority gets sloppy and innocent people suffer. For those who protest that Valenzuela and his attorneys are manipulating the system, so what? If the system is so weak that it can be manipulated, then the system is at fault.

It was perfectly proper for Valenzuela's attorneys to challenge vigorously the science of hair testing, the hair collection procedure, and even the fact that no one representing the racing board actually sat down with Valenzuela before July 1, looked into his eyes and told him that, for purposes of hair testing, he would need to produce a certain length of hair from some part of his body.

It is also reasonable, however, to expect a licensee to be familiar with the terms under which their license is granted. If there are questions of interpretation (How much hair? Hair from where?) the license holder has an obligation to ask for clarification, and the right to a straight answer. In this case, Valenzuela said, under oath, that he had not read the May 26 order from the racing board that required hair testing once he went back to work on July 1. Basically, his defense was, "I didn't know."

Well, now he knows. Urine testing requires urine. Hair testing requires hair. And riding dangerous Thorough-breds for a living is not a right. It is a privilege.