08/28/2002 11:00PM

Moving forward with EPO tests


NEW YORK - When Maryland investigators conducted a raid on Errol Wilson's barn at the Bowie Training Center on Aug. 2, they entered Thoroughbred history when, along with hypodermic needles, they confiscated two empty vials of Procrit, a trade name for the notorious blood-doping agent erythropoietin, or EPO.

Rumored to be in widespread use in racing for two years, EPO has so far eluded detection in all existing post-race tests, lending credence to the notion that the drug isn't being abused. Lacking an accurate test, racing commissions across the country furiously began adopting rules over the past two months banning trainers from possessing the drug, which is believed to be both performance-enhancing and dangerous.

Wilson became the first Thoroughbred trainer to be found with the drug, and he has since become the first trainer to be penalized for having it. On Aug. 14, Maryland's stewards suspended Wilson for 90 days, the maximum allowed under law, and recommended that the racing commission suspend him for another 90 days. They cited the emergency rule Maryland adopted on July 15 banning the drug from racetracks.

Wilson, who did not respond to a request for comment, may have been the first trainer to be hit with an EPO penalty, but don't expect him to be the last. Armed with new rules banning EPO possession, and emboldened by potential new methods to combat EPO use (such as a proposal by New York regulators to randomly test horses for the drug), regulators believe they are turning the corner.

"Obviously, this is a very positive step forward," said Lonny Powell, the president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which drafted the model rule banning EPO possession. "If a substance is not supposed to be present in an animal, and you have racing commissions making EPO a prohibited practice, then you have some teeth there."

The New York proposal, which is in an early planning stage, would likely allow regulators to test for EPO "out of competition," meaning not on a scheduled prerace or postrace basis. Any horse testing positive for EPO would be declared "unfit to race" and banned from racing until the drug cleared the horse's system, which could be up to three months.

New York regulators are contemplating the rule because of a new test developed by Dr. George Maylin, the head of the state's testing lab at Cornell University, in collaboration with other scientists. While the test can detect multiple EPO injections, it cannot determine when the drug was administered, or in what quantity, making it ineffective as a postrace test.

Instead, regulators are hoping to create a "chilling deterrent effect" by banning the horse from racing, said Jim Gallagher, a New York Racing Association official. "Once you put a horse on that list, that's a lot of time," Gallagher said. "That would dry up the use pretty quick."

The proposal, however, has drawbacks. Putting a horse on the EPO list, for example, would not specifically punish the trainer who administered the drug, and it might actually penalize the wrong trainer. Because EPO can stay in a horse's system so long, a claiming horse could have been through several barns after an EPO injection and still come up positive.

Some racing officials said the rules banning EPO possession could be coupled with the out-of-competition testing to punish specific trainers. A horse that tests positive for EPO could trigger a search of a trainer's barn, and if investigators find EPO, the trainer is punished, the officials said.

"I don't see us being against that," said Remi Bellocq, the executive director of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "We encourage stiffer testing and penalties for the evildoers, as George Bush might say."

Richard Bomze, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said most New York trainers would welcome out-of-competition testing if it cut back on the rumors about EPO use.

"The vast majority of horsemen, the good, logical trainers that want to run a clean outfit," Bomze said. "They will have no problem with this."