09/03/2001 11:00PM

Lax Kentucky drug rules no model


TUCSCON, Ariz. - With straight faces and solemn tones, officials of the Kentucky State Racing Commission have announced that they think the rest of the country should adopt their medication rules.

This is funny, but it's not a joke. Tom LaMarra reported it in The Blood-Horse magazine, quoting the commission's executive secretary as saying: "Everybody wants to use the word 'liberal' instead of the word 'progressive' to describe Kentucky. Maybe Kentucky ought to be the model for the United States. We are the template for change."

I'm not sure whether either "liberal" or "progressive" is the right word. "Minimal" comes to mind, and "regressive" fits, too. As for "a template of change," that's pure Bluegrass hyperbole.

The mantra of the moment in medication is "uniformity." Everyone is for it, but Kentucky can't even get uniformity in its rules for the two breeds that race there. Despite that, it suggests the nation is the one that's out of step and that Kentucky marches to the true drummer.

The chairman of the Kentucky commission, Frank Shoop, sells cars. If he can sell this model, he is Dealer of the Year, by open lengths.

LaMarra wrote, "Kentucky's medication rules have been called permissive, even by some from within the state. But Ned Bonnie, a member of the drug council, said medication rules aren't being targeted by the national task force."

Bonnie is right. He is a very smart lawyer and an expert on medication rules, and he knows that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is not about to offend its dues-paying members by letting the NTRA Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force walk anywhere near the land mines of state medication rules.

Bonnie says: "The Task Force wasn't designed to change, or isn't interested in changing, the rules in a given state, though it may want to assist states in enforcing their rules."

Kentuckian Nick Nicholson, now running Keeneland, made that clear years ago when he was with the NTRA. And NTRA commissioner Tim Smith, speaking at this year's Saratoga round table, confirmed it, and went even further, saying the NTRA's future role in the medication mess would be as "a catalyst."

Jim Gallagher, who fervently wants to make a significant contribution as head of the NTRA Drug Testing Task Force before he moves on, is determined to get something positive accomplished.

I have a few suggestions.

In Moscow, Dr. Patrick Schamasch, the International Olympic Committee's medical director, announced recently that a simple urine test may be ready this month for erythropoetin, or EPO, the hormone that improves endurance.

EPO has been beyond the testing ability of state racing laboratories, rendering meaningless the optimistic figures being presented as to the effectiveness of present drug testing.

In Australia, Dr. David Auer wrote in a Queensland racing publication:

"Using EPO posed little risk of detection to athletes because an analytical method to detect it that met forensic evidentiary criteria did not exist. Recently the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory has adapted a confirmation test for EPO that does meet forensic standards, and preliminary studies on race day horse samples have not identified any barriers to utilizing the method to confirm the presence of recombinant EPO in racehorse urine. If further evaluation of this test on horse urine is successful, it will be possible to confirm the administration of EPO. This would be a very cost-effective solution for the racing industry."

Much closer to home, the World Anti-Doping Agency voted two weeks ago to move its permanent headquarters to Montreal from Lausanne, Switzerland. The group received $18 million in tax incentives over 10 years from the city to make the move, and it, too, has been working on a single test to detect EPO under its determined leader Dick Pound.

How Kentucky plans to lead the nation is cumbersome. The state has an Equine Drug Council. A three-member technical committee will consider all research projects submitted to the council to determine which ones should be funded. A new "implementation" committee appointed by Shoop will make recommendations to the council's budget committee, which will make recommendations to the full council, which will make recommendations to the racing commission.

A far easier approach might be to ask Jim Gallagher, head of the Drug Task Force, to talk to the boys in Moscow, Australia, and Montreal about their tests for EPO. If we could get one here, someone might be entitled to use the word "progressive."