08/04/2008 11:00PM

New drugs make steroids look wimpy


TUCSON, Ariz. - Good news to calm our troubled seas, but a monster swimming up ahead.

* An emboldened Breeders' Cup said it is taking action to ban steroids in Cup events;

* A small group of racing leaders quietly met at Keeneland and reportedly discussed potential reforms to head off threatened federal legislation;

* The Ontario Racing Commission suspended Trevor Henry, the leading driver in Ontario Sire Stakes competition, for six months for cutting a horse with his whip in an act determined to be against the best interests of racing;

* Integrity clauses are being discussed in connection with presenting or revoking Eclipse Awards to individuals.

A few suggestions, if we may venture where angels fear to tread.

If the Breeders' Cup is serious, I recommend a simple single sentence in use for years in the conditions for harness racing's $1.5 million Hambletonian, won last Saturday by the brilliant 3-year-old colt trotter Deweycheatumnhowe, now undefeated in 15 races. It reads: "No horse shall be permitted to race in the Open or the Oaks with Phenylbutazone (Butazolidin) or Furosemide (Salix, formerly Lasix)."

If that is too much to ask, how about banning the use of Salix in Cup races for 2-year-olds? It was the unfettered use of the drug that started racing's current medication troubles. Now we find a field of a dozen of the sport's best juveniles all needing that chemical boost in the division's most prestigious race. That might be hard to explain to a public whose views suddenly are becoming a matter of concern with the hot breath of federal legislators warming the issue.

On the integrity issue, Harness Tracks of America has for years refused to award honors to horses or humans with medication violations on their records.

Eight Belles cannot be blamed or credited for everything. The people in charge need to step forward at some point and show they mean what they say. Last week's developments are heartening.

Steroids are the popular villain of the moment, and rightfully so, but previews of a racing horror movie far beyond steroids appeared in a highly visible forum last week: the New York Times.

The article, by Nicolas Wade, was headlined, "Couch Mouse to Mr. Mighty by Pills Alone." It told of researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego reporting they have found two drugs that do wonders for the athletic endurance of couch-potato mice. One drug, known as Aicar, increased inactive mice's endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment.

The second substance, unnamed other than its designation as GW1516, did even more, increasing endurance by 75 percent, but it had to be combined with exercise to have any effect.

In the worrisome copycat world of North American horse racing today, a blue balloon tied to the tail of a winning horse could trigger a blue blizzard the next morning reminiscent of the barrage balloons over Normandy beaches on D-Day. The amazing new test findings must excite the imagination of edge-seeking trainers who are wrecking the game. Horse trainers can be avid readers, and the Times article probably is pinned up or tucked away in tack rooms across America.

Aicar and GW1516 are in the experimental stage, but Dr. Ronald M. Evans, the leader of the Salk group, was quoted as calling them "a little like a free lunch without the calories." He said it seemed "reasonably likely" the findings would apply to people, since humans control muscle tone with the same underlying genes as mice. If the drugs work and prove safe, Evans says they could be useful in a wide range of settings.

Given the present attitude of cheaters, the safety or welfare of horses would not get first call in considering their use.

In the article, Evans admitted that the muscle-enhancing drugs would have obvious appeal to athletes seeking to gain an edge in performance, and said athletes often showed up at lectures he has given and asked about the drugs. He did not mention horse trainers.

The Salk experiment is backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Happily, Evans reported that Olympic testers, also headquartered in Southern California, already have discussed with the researchers tests for discovering Aicar and GW1516 use, and were told there is no problem detecting use of the muscle-remodeling substances. Rub your beads.

The present research is for the possible benefit of mankind. Racing needs to make sure it remains just that. On top of all other problems and concerns of survival, how would you like to start your steed against one with 75 percent greater endurance in the stretch drive?