01/15/2003 1:00AM

Kentucky considers wider drug testing

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Kentucky regulators have decided to explore a plan to perform equine drug tests on days the horses are not entered to race in a bid to intercept trainers who may be using illegal blood-doping drugs.

The plan, called out-of-competition testing, will be studied by a committee that was approved at a regular Kentucky Racing Commission meeting on Wednesday outside Lexington. The plan had been presented to the commission by the Kentucky Equine Drug Council, an offshoot of the commission that makes recommendations on drug policies.

The 10-member committee, which will be appointed over the next month, will study whether out-of-competition testing is feasible from a logistical and financial standpoint, said Frank Shoop, the chairman of the commission. Out-of-competition testing would require the cooperation of racetracks and horsemen, who may object to the procedures on privacy grounds, and would also require a long list of new rules and regulations.

One Kentucky racing commissioner, Richard Klein, a horse owner from Louisville, objected to the formation of the committee, saying out-of-competition testing would target trainers who were using drugs to legitimately treat sick or injured horses.

"Horses are no different from any other type of athlete," Klein said. "I'm just not in favor of saying that they can't get the treatment they need."

No state currently tests for drugs at any time other than immediately after a race, according to Lonny Powell, the president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

The Kentucky Racing Commission is "plowing brand-new, virgin ground here, but it's something that is becoming of interest to a lot of people," Powell said.

The move to expand testing beyond the post-race arena has grown out of the industry's futility in implementing a test to detect erythropoietin, the blood-doping agent known as EPO. Many racing officials are convinced that EPO is being abused in racing, and most racing commissions, including Kentucky's, have passed rules in the past 12 months making possession of the drug prohibited.

No studies have been performed to demonstrate whether EPO would have a performance-enhancing effect on horses. The drug is widely abused in human sports, where use of EPO and other similar drugs can give an athlete increased stamina by stoking the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

For EPO to have an impact on a horse's stamina, the drug would need to be administered on a regular schedule that would entail withdrawing the drug at least a week before a race, racing officials have said. That schedule has complicated attempts to develop an adequate EPO test.

Two tests have already been developed that can detect EPO, but neither test is suited for a postrace application. The first, which has been in circulation for months at many racing laboratories, is so sensitive that it can detect EPO that was administered up to five months before the test is performed. In addition, the test cannot determine exactly when the EPO was used. That could lead to problems in enforcement if a positive came up in a horse that had changed barns in the past six months, racing officials said.

The second test can only detect EPO that has been administered within the preceding 72 hours. Since EPO is not administered within a week of a race, the test would be useless in a postrace setting. Using the 72-hour test would be ideal, however, if the tests were performed at random on horses that were not entered to race, racing officials said.

"Out-of-competition testing is perfect for that, from my vantage point, because you get around the 72-hour limit," said Dr. Scott Waterman, the director of a drug-testing task force set up by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

- additional reporting by Vance Hanson