03/14/2005 1:00AM

Let's get testing right this time


ARCADIA, Calif. - The consortium of California racetracks that has instituted prerace testing to detect the illegal, race-day administration of alkalizing agents is getting high praise from many quarters, and rightfully so.

In taking the initiative, the track managements have dared the California Horse Racing Board to follow their lead. So far, the board is responding in kind. But administrative rule changes grind slowly, which means it could be months before the state legislature codifies specific test levels and sanctions that will stand legal scrutiny.

Still, it is worth the time to get it right. Nothing would be worse than a half-cocked set of rules, full of loopholes and backed by bad diagnostics. A civilization, after all, is no better than its laws.

Unfortunately, California racing has been plagued the past two decades by a number of drug-testing debacles that in many instances penalized the innocent and then, in a predictable backlash, gave comfort to subsequent violators.

The racing community has been assured that the protocols of the current bicarbonate testing conducted by the tracks are supported by extensive research and analysis, thereby lending teeth to enforcement and integrity to the ultimate goal of deterrence.

Certainly, the current racing board deserves to stand or fall on the merits of its own response to the issue of drug testing and enforcement. At the same time, the California commissioners might want to glance at the past, when their predecessors got it horribly wrong and the game suffered as a consequence. For instance. . .

On Nov. 9, 1988, Roger Stein was suspended 180 days and fined $2,000 when the urine sample taken from the Stein-trained Emperor's Turn tested positive for cocaine after a race at Santa Anita on Oct. 23, 1988. Rebuffed by the CHRB, Stein had to petition the local Superior Court for a stay of the penalties, pending his appeal.

Then, in February of 1989, there followed a cluster of five more trainers charged for cocaine positives. The most notable among them were Hall of Famer Lazaro Barrera and D. Wayne Lukas, who had just won his sixth straight national championship. Four of the positives - including those from horses trained by Lukas and Barrera - dated back to the late summer of 1988 and were called after testing frozen urine samples.

"In all probability, there will be additional positives," said Leonard Foote, then executive director of the CHRB. "At least, that's my informed guess."

Foote was basing his "guess" on the number of frozen samples still to be tested by Truesdail Laboratories, the official California lab that had begun using more cocaine-sensitive screening procedures in the wake of the Stein positive.

However, those procedures began coming under fire once such names as Lukas and Barrera entered the mix. Their involvement effectively moved the story from the back of the paper to the front of the sports sections, which at one point included a Los Angeles Times column by Mike Downey under the headline, "They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?"

It came as no surprise. Cocaine was no esoteric, synthetic concoction used primarily to embolden roosters or numb elephants. It was the stuff of "Miami Vice," a popular street drug widely available in the general population, and then allegedly turning up in the tests of Thoroughbred racehorses. Barrera and Lukas, bound by racing's traditional "absolute insurer" rule, found themselves professing their innocence and defending their reputations on an almost daily basis.

Independent research commissioned by both Lukas and Stein uncovered potential flaws in the scientific interpretation of the Truesdail test results, raising the possibility that the urine sample itself had been contaminated. The CHRB subsequently launched its own probe of the lab (it was discovered, for instance, that a shelf collapsed at Truesdail, destroying about 600 frozen urine samples). Three months after the February test findings, on May 30, 1989, the CHRB backed away from those accusations and dropped the charges against five of the six trainers.

Only the Stein case remained, for reasons the CHRB at the time did not make particularly clear, except to say the circumstances were "different." Stein continued his fight until, nearly a year and a half after the initial penalties were issued, the racing board took the advice of the state attorney general's office and dismissed the charges.

Stein still trains, although he has been sidelined recently by foot surgery. He was asked if any lessons were learned from his ordeal.

"There was very little common sense involved in my case," Stein said. "Two days after the ruling, the racing board was told by a state toxicologist that they had made a mistake. The lab purged my records, lost my blood sample. But still, the racing board persisted.

"As it turned out, my fortunes improved when Wayne and Laz came up with positives," Stein went on. "Here was the guy who trained Affirmed, who'd trained for 35 years, and suddenly he needs to use cocaine? It made you question the testing procedure, rather than what someone supposedly gave the horse."

Stein filed a civil suit against Truesdail, citing suppression of evidence and malpractice and asking for $100,000 in specific damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

"I was told I had to prove malice, which is very difficult when a state agency or contract holder is involved," Stein said. "They wore me out. People think I got millions, but I ended up getting $500 to settle the case, which basically ended the suit. I think I've still got that check someplace, framed."