07/10/2007 12:00AM

Litmus test for drug justice


WASHINGTON - Few trainers have international credentials to match those of Patrick Biancone. He made his reputation in his native France during the 1980s, training the great filly All Along and winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe twice. He spent a decade in Hong Kong, where he twice won the Hong Kong Derby. Since 2000, he has operated a successful, high-class stable in the United States; he won a $1 million race in California on Friday.

Now Biancone is at the center of a Kentucky case involving illegal medications, and it could overshadow all of his achievements.

Drug infractions are barely newsworthy in modern-day American racing, considering that six of the nation's top 10 money-winning trainers have served suspensions in the past year. But L'Affaire Biancone has resonated with the racing community, even though no official charges have been made against the trainer and many details of the case have not been made public.

If the initial reports prove to be true, the cosmopolitan Biancone could be to horse racing what Floyd Landis, the disgraced Tour de France winner, is to professional cycling: the symbol of the sport's cancerous drug problem.

One of Biancone's horses tested positive in Kentucky for two substances that are banned on race day, an infraction that in other jurisdictions might have drawn a slap on the wrist. But Kentucky has a new sheriff in town - chief steward John Veitch - who is deadly serious about combating illegal drugs.

Investigators searched Biancone's barns at Keeneland Race Course. According to reports in the Daily Racing Form, they found a vial labeled "Toxin" - and the vial contained cobra venom. The forbidden substance can block nerves to stop the body's transmission of pain to the brain. Thus it could permit injured horses to keep giving all-out effort.

Immediately the Biancone case attracted special attention. This was not a case, like so many in racing, when an offense is perceived to be a technical infraction - such as when the amount of a permitted drug exceeds the legal limits. Cobra venom is illegal in every racing jurisdiction and inhumane as well.

Moreover, this wasn't the first time Biancone was involved in a drug controversy. The trainer was banned from racing in Hong Kong in 1999 after two of his horses tested positive for forbidden medications. (He had earlier been fined for positives in 23 others.) By U.S. standards, the substances were benign and therapeutic, but Hong Kong authorities take their drug rules seriously.

Neither Veitch, Biancone nor the trainer's veterinarian have spoken publicly about the details of the case. The presence of cobra venom hasn't been officially acknowledged. An official hearing has not yet been conducted. Keeneland president Nick Nicholson urged: "Give the facts a chance to come out. The regulatory steps are being taken now. They're not going to sit on this."

But the cobra venom story has already generated widespread discussion about the sport's drug problem and its inability to rid itself of cheaters.

When prominent trainers are caught with a violation, their suspensions are a farce. They run their horses in the name of an assistant, supervising their operations by telephone, and their stables never miss a beat. The whole system is such a farce that it has created widespread distrust and cynicism among the sport's fans, who routinely make bets based on certain trainers' possession of "the juice." Bettors aren't the only ones who are disgusted. Honest trainers hate what they see happening to the game and its reputation.

"I hear people talk all the time about horses being drugged," said Hall of Fame horseman Shug McGaughey. "The perception is getting worse and worse. And when you see the headlines about Biancone, it makes it even harder for someone who loves the game to stand up for it."

Nick Zito, the two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, lamented: "We have the worst reputation possible. The general perception of our business is, 'They cheat.' It's time to say that enough is enough. I don't want to see anyone suffer, but [if you cheat] you have to pay the consequences."

Like many people in the industry, Keeneland's Nicholson believes that better drug testing is crucial, and he says that the industry is making strong progress in this area.

"We want to get the cheaters who are using the most modern designer drugs," he said.

That's an admirable aim, but it is probably a chimera, because the cheaters invariably stay a step ahead of the testers. Racing officials have known about cobra venom for some time, but the chemists can't detect it because it is administered in such small quantities.

Effective testing is almost irrelevant if racing authorities don't hand out meaningful penalties. Harness racing has done so and has imposed some severe suspensions on violators. When a father-and-son training combination was found to be using cobra venom and other illicit drugs at Saratoga Raceway, they were charged with a felony, and their licenses will probably be permanently revoked. But leaders of Thoroughbred racing have not displayed a comparable determinationto crack down on violators.

The Biancone case will be a revealing test of racing's justice system. The trainer is entitled to a fair hearing, and nobody should pre-judge him. But what if the early reports are correct? What does the sport do about a trainer who has already been kicked out of another racing jurisdiction and now has been found to possess a substance as illegal as cobra venom?

If racing doesn't deal out a harsh punishment, if it permits the usual charade of allowing the trainer's horses to run in the name of an assistant, the sport's efforts to combat illegal drugs will lose their last shred of credibility.

(c) 2007 The Washington Post