05/11/2005 11:00PM

Harsh penalties proposed

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Equine Drug Council voted unanimously Thursday to approve recommendations that would dramatically increase suspensions and fines for trainers whose horses test positive for performance-enhancing medications.

The recommendations, which will be forwarded to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority for final approval on Monday, include a one-year minimum suspension for any trainer whose horse tests positive for a host of performance-enhancing drugs, including opiates and erythropoietin, a blood-enhancer. The penalties include provisions that could involve suspensions of horses and could prohibit suspended trainers from transferring horses to assistants or family members during the term of a trainer's suspension.

The recommendations from the drug council, an eight-member panel appointed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, are part of a larger strategy by the state's regulators to crack down on drug abuse under the leadership of Fletcher, a Republican, who was elected in 2003. Earlier this year, the council approved rules that drastically limit the number of raceday medications permitted, following guidelines developed by a national group, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The consortium helped Kentucky regulators draft the penalty recommendations as well, council members said.

"I think Kentucky, around the country, is being perceived as being the leader that we are and should be," said Connie Whitfield, the chairwoman of the drug council.

Council members said they believed the new penalties would act as a deterrent to trainers and veterinarians who are tempted to experiment with performance-enhancing medications.

The penalties are based on three different drug categories. The harshest penalties would be for so-called Class A drugs, performance-enhancing medications that have no therapeutic benefit to horses. Penalties for relatively innocuous drugs such as the painkiller phenylbutazone will remain somewhat lenient. In between are substances that have both performance-enhancing capabilities and therapeutic uses, called Class B drugs.

The penalties include the possible suspension of horses for any positive for a Class A drug and for a second or third positive for a Class B drug, at the discretion of the stewards. Council members said they believed that by limiting horse suspensions except in the most drastic cases to second and third offenses, the rule would protect owners who did not know that their trainers were administering illegal medications.

"The first time around, we thought [the owner] should be put on notice that his trainer might have a problem, so maybe his horse might have a problem too," said Bill Napier, a council member.

In addition to suspending horses, the penalties allow stewards to force a trainer to give up the horses under his or her care for the length of the suspension, which would effectively prohibit a trainer from collecting any money from owners during the suspension. Under most states' current rules, a suspended trainer is denied access to racetrack grounds, but his or her horses can still be run under the name of an assistant or family member.

"This is nothing short of a death penalty," said John Ward, a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer and a council member. "This will definitely make a dent in a horseman's career."