03/03/2003 1:00AM

Louisiana: 12 positives for EPO

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The state racing laboratory in Louisiana has detected 12 positives for erythropoietin, the blood-doping drug commonly known as EPO, from horses who have raced at Delta Downs or Fair Grounds in the past month, the laboratory's director, Dr. Steven Barker, said Monday.

The test results confirm that EPO is being abused in Louisiana, Dr. Barker said, although no action will be taken to punish the trainers whose horses tested positive because of concerns over the accuracy of the test. Laboratories in two other states, New York and Texas, have also recently detected positives for EPO using a new test that has been quietly distributed to racing labs across the U.S. in the last several months.

The Louisiana positives came up in 400 routine tests the laboratory conducted in February, Dr. Barker said. The trainers of the horses that tested positive have not yet been determined, according to Dr. Barker.

"We're going to use the results to come up with a list of the trainers and veterinarians who may be using the drug and then use that for any follow-up investigations," Dr. Barker said. "If we start to get multiple hits on the same trainer, and there is a certain veterinarian associated with him, then we can have some confidence in coming up with a degree of probable cause."

EPO, which stimulates the spleen to create oxygen-carrying red blood cells, is widely used in human medicine to treat anemia and to boost red blood-cell production in chemotherapy patients. Rumors about its abuse in horse racing have circulated for years after human athletes in endurance sports such as cycling and cross-country skiing began to be connected in the late 1990's with the illegal use of the drug.

The new test, developed by scientists in New York and New Jersey, detects antibodies produced by a horse in response to an injection of a human form of EPO. The test cannot determine when the EPO was administered except to narrow the administration down to a three-month window, complicating any attempts by regulators to enact penalties for a positive result.

Barker said that he anticipated working with regulators in Texas to develop a policy for dealing with EPO positives on the Southwest circuit, citing the overlap of many trainers between tracks in Texas and Louisiana. He said regulators could cooperate in any investigation of trainers suspected of using the drug.

Because testing for EPO has been so problematic, regulators have resorted to novel rules to combat the use of the drug. Last year, the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group for state racing commissions, recommended that states adopt rules banning the possession of EPO at racetracks. Nearly every U.S. racing state adopted the rule in response.

Horsemen, veterinarians, and laboratory directors have said that EPO would likely be administered once or twice a month on a regular schedule, and that the drug would not normally be used on raceday. A single injection costs approximately $200.