05/26/2008 11:00PM

Government sees new war on drugs

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TUCSON, Ariz. - That knocking at the door is the feds, and they want in.

Growing impatient with the inability of horse racing to stop its chemist trainers, a few members of Congress, led by Kentucky's Rep. Ed Whitfield, are stirring the fires of federal intervention. Racing's fear is that if they huff and puff long enough, they may blow the house down.

This terrifies racing, as it always has, but soon comes the time for decision: Let them in, or continue to bar the door.

Forcing reconsideration of federal action is continued frustration at racing's inability to rid itself of its chemical troublemakers. Those evildoers not only are damaging the sport for personal gain, but forcing others to consider doing the same. It seems evident now that some trainers have gotten their hands on stuff that can't be detected with present testing methods.

Racing's current security apparatus is not equipped, either with the tools of science or the power of enforcement, to stem the tide. States lack the will, and many the funds, to squarely face the issue and crack the code. Those that have adopted the model rules of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium deserve credit for positive action, but the consortium itself has been unable to generate the industry's financial support that it needs to expand its valuable work.

The issue is as big as the backstretches of America, and no help has been forthcoming from them.

Without adequate police power, without full-throated state support, without willingness to take meaningful action in banning all steroids and drugs on race day and sufficiently before, without wider and well-financed research, and without the cooperation of horsemen who know what is happening and in some cases are taking advantage of it, where can racing turn?

Washington comes to mind, not only because it could provide answers, but because it is growing restless that others have not. Although the tragedy of Eight Belles had nothing to do with synthetic fuels, it had much to do with public perception, including that of influential legislators.

It generated an awareness of concern for the horse that did not exist before in either volume or vehemence, and if it triggers strong and sustained action, the filly may not have died in vain.

Even backers of the somewhat secretive Equine Drug Research Institute must be frustrated to hear its patron saint, the leader of Olympic drug testing, Dr. Don Catlin, say that racing is fighting a very steep uphill battle.

Until that battle is won, and without the will to win it, what other weapons does racing have?

The feds could provide a unit powerful and skillful enough to find the offenders, grab them by the throat, and toss them into a federal penitentiary. That would be the most effective deterrent possible. A cheating horseman in a federal brig would catch the attention of everyone on every backstretch everywhere.

As distasteful and dangerous as federal intervention would be for racing, no other course seems to be working. The idea of government intervention is anathema, with good cause, but unless the backstretches give up their tightly held secrets, federal controls could be imposed upon us. The silence of the backstretch is weighing heavily on the homestretch, where the silent majority speaks with authority.

Drugs are not, of course, the only explanation for the diminishing numbers of track attendees. Current economic conditions, led by $4-a-gallon gasoline inhibiting travel, will contribute further damage. Online betting opportunities, both legal and illegal, will provide further erosion and continue to change dramatically the profile of American racing.

There are other causes as well, marketing and changing public habits and vastly wider options among them, but those are not the focus here. Breaking the chemical crisis is goal number 1, and critical.

There will be cries that federal intervention is too draconian and far-reaching, and that is a real and clear danger. Ed Whitfield already is talking about amendment of the Interstate Horse Racing Act, a prospect that racing cannot accept.

To allow what is happening to continue, however, also is unacceptable. If the sport were to rise up and pressure racing commissions with loud vocal demands for stronger action, it might stir those politically sensitive appointees into urging their legislatures to grant greater latitude on penalties and enforcement. And if the overwhelming majority of honest horsemen could be convinced they hold the key to the first entry door to salvation in their hands, perhaps the omerta code of silence could be broken.

If not, that knock on the door will continue, and one of these days those doing the knocking could simply break it down and walk in.