10/07/2002 11:00PM

New drug rules not nearly enough

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TUCSON, Ariz. - At their last meeting, members of the beleaguered Kentucky Racing Commission took a few encouraging steps to repair their damaged reputation on permissive medication.

They hired a respected non-Kentuckian to advise them, after months of worrying that he wasn't true bluegrass. They cut raceday medications from 16 to five, instead of to zero, which they should have done. The commission made a bid for respectability.

I reported favorably on all of that, agreeing with David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, that the modest new policies "were a step in the right direction."

But the next day, I was surprised to read that Frank Shoop, chairman of the commission, said that "this sets the stage for Kentucky becoming a model for the nation on this very important issue," and that he didn't think he would "ever preside over a more important meeting."

Shoop never smiled once during the commission meeting, and I presume he also made his post-meeting statements with a straight face.

If I was surprised, others were outraged. If Shoop and his colleagues thought their meeting would wash away the public stain of Kentucky's permissiveness, they obviously were mistaken.

One of those most upset was veteran racing writer Paul Moran of Newsday in New York. In a column titled "Drug reform in Kentucky is a cruel joke," he called the Kentucky reforms "a smokescreen." He wrote that Shoop presumably "was proud to have fashioned a rule so typical of the den of vipers that has become racing in Kentucky." What the Kentucky commission had done is not reform, Moran wrote, but camouflage.

Moran argued that even after Shoop's "most important" meeting ever, Kentucky still allows horses to race on two painkillers and two bleeder medications administered on race day.

A day after the meeting, Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote that "the new policy still will be the country's most liberal for raceday medication. With extremely narrow exceptions, no other state allows anti-inflammatories to be given on race day. Most states restrict their use to 24-18 hours before a race."

Horsemen, not the racing commission, still run the show in Kentucky. They announced they were making "a big compromise in moving off dead center" in allowing the cosmetic changes adopted, and they made it clear that they hoped "something else" would not be proposed next year.

Commissioners who order rule changes simply because horsemen ask them to are like politicians who say, "There go my constituents. I am their leader and I must follow them." Commissioners, however, are not elected by constituents. They are political appointees delegated to run racing. Running racing is not public relations; it requires guts, not blind acquiescence to the people commissioners are supposed to regulate.

Two things are needed to clean up this mess.

One is to spend time and resources to fund full and extensive research to discover rocket fuel now being used on horses that is undetectable - not to establish threshold levels, not to debate which medications to allow, not to set up still another expensive racing bureaucracy. Until that is done, all the talk about the sanctity of the sport and wonderful test results is wasted oratory. If you can't detect what is being used, then all other claims are a sham.

The second is to ban all medication on race day. All medication, no exceptions - no Salix, no Bute, no mouthwashes except water, and no vets on the grounds except for emergencies, nothing. The bums who violate the rules must be thrown out, and the canard that every illegal thing found is natural "contamination" must be retired.

Allowing horsemen to dictate the rules of racing is like allowing drivers to establish traffic rules and speed limits. To allow the administration of any medication within four hours of post time because horsemen have always done that and want to continue to do it is akin to serving booze in an AA meeting. Horsemen will stretch the rules as far as they can, and knowledgeable and determined regulators - not horsemen's associations - need to set the standards for American racing.