07/05/2011 12:20PM

A little money would go long way toward catching those using illegal drugs

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The story should have driven racing’s Richter scale past the 9.0 mark.

It was an earthquake, but it didn’t move the needle.

It was a short column written by a man who writes very little on Thoroughbred racing, but who shakes up harness racing with his offerings from time to time in a rising newsletter called Harness Racing Update and another in Australia called Harness Link.

His name is Andrew Cohen, and although he owns pacers he is far too smart to rely on race horses to make a living. He works for CBS, as chief legal analyst and legal editor of CBS News. And he also writes on national issues for the intellectually challenging Atlantic Monthly.

His job is interesting in the context of this column, for a lesser man might not walk where angels fear to tread. Cohen walks confidently, knowing the soft spots but the hard ground as well.

About a year ago, he came as close as one safely could on suggesting that one of the sport’s leading trainers was using illegal juice.

In an Atlantic Monthly article written about 10 months ago he named the performance enhancing substance being imported from France, with a long technical name but more commonly referred to as NormOxys or ITPP. He thinks it could be the rocket fuel skewing the sport’s results in some cases. Cohen wants authorities in harness racing to put up the $100,000 needed by noted toxicologist Dr. Larry Soma of the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues at the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory, to finish work that could produce a reliable test for the illegal substance. There currently is none for it, and it reportedly stimulates faster blood release into oxygen.

One would have to be naïve to think that something that makes stars out of claimers – and could help make literally millions for some owners and trainers who win slot-infused major purses – would escape the notice of Thoroughbred trainers looking for an edge. Like their small group of despicable counterparts in harness racing, they will use the stuff as long as they aren’t being caught.

Cohen suggested that Standardbred Canada and the United States Trotting Association, the record-keeping and registry bodies of harness racing in Canada and the U.S. – put up the money. That drew silence.

He also thinks the leading racing states and provinces – Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, and soon Ohio when the slot money begins flowing to Buckeye purses – could get together and fund Soma’s work.

No one has publicly contradicted Cohen’s statements, and you would think the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, based in Lexington, Ky., knows about the stuff. The RMTC, like other racing groups, is starved for funds, and it appears financial help will have to come from elsewhere.

Cohen wrote recently, “It should not have taken this long to respond to Dr. Soma’s call. And it shouldn’t take another six months, either. This is precisely the sort of thing our industry should be rushing to do if we are to be serious about racing integrity. Yes, I know, it’s bad publicity for the sport to be seen as scrambling to stem a new drug problem. But you know what’s worse? Bad publicity and fleeing bettors sick of what they are seeing these days. Besides, a good marketing campaign could easily make a donation for such a cause an asset.”

Cohen was speaking to a harness racing audience, but I will speak to the runners.

ITPP, which was compounded in France only six years ago, can be a scourge. And like other scourges, most recently rinderpest in cattle, it can be caught and tamed.

The Jockey Club, which has used Ogden Mills Phipps’s determination, power, wealth, and leadership as chairman for so many worthwhile issues on medication, should interest itself on this one. Jim Gagliano, its young, resourceful, and highly motivated president and COO, can move and guide the effort. And Alex Waldrop, the president and CEO of the NTRA, speaks eloquently for Thoroughbred tracks on the medication issue. That’s a formidable trifecta to open a campaign, and there are scores of effective racing leaders to back them.

Dr. Soma is ready and waiting. Now is one of those critical moments for racing. Let’s grab this opportunity to get the bad apples out of the barrel. They will sicken us all if we don’t.