02/08/2005 1:00AM

Milkshaking just tip of drug-dealing iceberg


TUCSON, Ariz. - Thoroughbred racing's sudden concern about milkshaking, and the rush of jurisdictions that have ignored it for years to now urgently do something about it, is symptomatic of the most dangerous problem in racing today.

But the bicarbonate brouhaha is the tip of the iceberg.

Milkshaking - the administration of sodium bicarbonate to reduce the buildup of lactic acid and ensuing fatigue - is like addition and subtraction in first grade. It is where things start, not where they end.

The administration of performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses has developed into a calculus of chemistry, a sophisticated industry of compounding drugs that can escape detection and give users a huge edge.

Hardboot proponents of permissive medication argue that there is no substance that can make a horse run faster than he can run.

It is a specious argument.

Performance-enhancing drugs do just what the name says: they enhance performance, by reducing fatigue, increasing strength, altering natural performance.

If that were not true, the multimillion-dollar program of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is leading the battle to find currently undetectable designer drugs, would be a waste of money. The agency is doing it because it knows that swimmers on drugs can swim faster, runners can run faster, and jumpers jump higher, and baseball players using enhancements can hit balls farther than those not using illegal substances.

Some of the world's top chemists know it, too. If it were not true, racing might as well let trainers use anything they can get their hands on - EPO, darbopoietin, sophisticated and dangerous undetectables - which a few do today.

Major League Baseball finally is acknowledging there is a problem. So are officials in football-crazy Texas, where nine high school players taking steroids made national headlines last week by admitting they were using them, after their coach had called the parent who broke the story a liar. Those nine high school kids - and does anyone believe they are alone? - obviously believe they can bulk themselves up to the behemoth size it now takes to make college or professional linemen, or make them pass or kick farther than they can otherwise, or run faster. And they believe it without knowing, or caring, what it can do to them physically, just as those horse trainers who use chemicals do so without knowing, or apparently caring, what it can do to their horses.

The problem facing racing in North America and everywhere else today is not simply milkshaking a horse. Things have gone far beyond that. The problem is exactly what Dr. Gary Wadler, a clinical associate professor at New York University and an expert on performance-enhancing substances, called it.

It is drug dealing.

The biggest news in racing in recent weeks was not the Eclipse Awards in Los Angeles or the bust at Aqueduct in New York.

The biggest news came in Montreal and Maryland.

In Montreal, the World Anti-Doping Agency announced it had found a way to detect DMT, the latest designer drug that until now had escaped detection. It apparently is more advanced and far more complex than THG, which broke open the BALCO baseball and track-and-field scandal last year.

In Maryland, the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau announced that Franklin T. Fabian, an FBI veteran who headed oversight of undercover work at the Bureau, would step into the big shoes of Paul Berube, the retiring president of the TRPB and its sister organization, Standardbred Investigative Services. Berube spent much of his time chasing and catching drug dealers. Hopefully, Fabian will expand that effort to the backstretches of North America.

These twin developments are what racing needs desperately: detection of currently undetectable drugs that are turning journeymen horsemen into overnight training sensations, and an undercover network to uncover the veil of silence on the backstretch and put away the cheaters.

Thoroughbred racing for years considered milkshaking a harness racing problem, until Dr. Ron Jensen's finding of 10 percent positives in runners in California, when the sport awoke to find that horses are horses, and horsemen who choose to cheat are not breed-specific.

Undetectable designer drugs are not breed-specific, either.

Uniform rules and penalties are absolutely needed, and that is what the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium is closing in on. But detection of designer drugs is an even bigger problem, and racing needs to bite the bullet and spend the millions it will take to solve it.