09/24/2002 12:00AM

Mouthwash much ado about little


LEXINGTON, Ky. - I'm in Lexington this week, heart of the Bluegrass and home of the medicated mouthwash for racehorses.

That was the big equine story here this week, so I trotted over to the Red Mile, America's truly in-town racetrack, to hear what the Kentucky Racing Commission had to say about horses gargling just before a race.

Commission executive director Bernie Hettel had told Lexington's Eclipse-award-winning racing columnist Maryjean Wall that chairman Frank Shoop had directed him to write an exception to the state's rule on allowing no medications within four hours of post to accommodate horsemen, but that he - Hettel - was troubled about it because of two inadvertent D. Wayne Lukas mouthwash positives three years ago.

Wall came down on the side of the angels in her paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, with a column carrying the headline "Mouthwash exception smells of something."

It turns out that the commission considered the issue just what Wall wrote that it was, "a tempest in a teapot," and quickly passed the rule. Its adviser on such matters, Dr. Tom Tobin of the University of Kentucky, explained that substances in mouthwashes are innocuous, and the commission adopted a rule identifying a mouthwash as "a small volume of fluid, with or without flavoring agents, applied to the oral cavity of a horse in his stall to facilitate the removal of unwanted material." Wall asked why water wouldn't do, and Dr. Tobin's explanation was that mouthwashes have been used commonly by trainers for years, and that as long as the total volume of wash solution was less than five fluid ounces and contained no substances associated with "milk shakes" or prohibited foreign substances as identified by the Association of Racing Commissioners, there was no reason to ban them.

The commission agreed, and that tempest taken care of, it got down to more significant matters. Commissioner Alice Chandler, a longtime voice of reason on medication issues as a truly concerned horsewoman, introduced a motion providing for the commission to hire Dr. Richard Sams of Ohio State as a consultant, and it passed unanimously. That breath of fresh Kentucky air ended a smoldering months-long controversy over whether Dr. Sams, not being a Kentuckian, was fit to tell people in the state what to do about medication.

Dr. Sams, of course, is one of the leading experts on the field in America, and it was a big step forward that he will serve not only as a consultant to the racing commission, but to the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council as well.

There was another major development. With Dr. Tobin's guidance, Kentucky is cutting down from 16 medications allowed on race day to five, which is five too many but certainly preferable to the array of chemicals that previously were legal to pump into horses on raceday in Kentucky.

The Red Mile, a historic harness track in the center of Lexington, was an appropriate place for the commission meeting. A major Grand Circuit harness meeting is going on there at the moment, along with a major equine art show and auction this week, and it was a fitting site for a meeting that in its own way was significant, if not historic.

Other cities have racetracks close to downtown - Boston's Suffolk Downs comes quickly to mind - and of course the late and lamented Sportsman's Park in Chicago billed itself for years as "the In-Town track," although it is nine miles from Chicago's loop, but in-town in Cicero. But the Red Mile is a mile from the heart of downtown Lexington, and if slots come to Kentucky tracks it will have the best casino location in the city, if not the state or nation.

No one mentioned slots at the meeting. The first hour of discussion concerned an application for a Quarter Horse track near the Tennessee border and Knoxville, with impassioned pleas by the prospective owners and quick objections by representatives of Turfway Park, Churchill Downs, and Keeneland. Chairman Shoop made it clear that he didn't think the commission had heard enough to grant a license, and then cleared his throat, without the help of a medicinal mouthwash, and moved on to the matter of improving Kentucky's troublesome reputation as a bastion of Bluegrass permissiveness.

It turned out to be a bright, sunny day, both for racing at the Red Mile and for Kentucky racing in general.