11/09/2006 1:00AM

Officials hope safety plan fosters debate


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Participants in a recent conference focusing on racehorse safety have developed a plan calling for the racing industry to develop better monitoring systems for injuries, regulations on the use of anabolic steroids, and the publication of statistics indicating the durability of the progeny of sires.

The plan, which was released on Thursday by a group of racing officials, veterinarians, academics, and horsemen, contains dozens of specific recommendations to address the topic of racing injuries, an issue that, for some, has moved rapidly to the forefront of the racing industry's agenda. This year, the breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, the fatal injury sustained by Pine Island in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Distaff, and the installation of artificial surfaces designed to be safer for racehorses at several high-profile tracks have all served to highlight the dangers to horses posed by racing.

The plan grew out of a conference on Oct. 16-17 in Lexington, Ky., that invited racing officials to discuss ways to improve conditions for racehorses. Immediately following that conference, participants called for the prohibition of toe-grab horseshoes, citing studies indicating that the use of the shoes correlated significantly with catastrophic breakdowns.

Though the plan calls for a hodgepodge of racing organizations to help implement the recommendations, the developers acknowledged that the plan has no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the developers hope to continue fostering debate about the plan's recommendations in order to seek change that would benefit horses' health.

"What we've got to do is keep nudging people," said Ed Bowen, the president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which organized the October conference. "The people who are enthusiastic about these ideas will have to continue playing an active role, to get people to buy into the things we're talking about and recommending."

The recommendations do not call for an outright ban on anabolic steroids, but rather testing for steroids both at sales and at racetracks. Anabolic steroids are used widely in racing at every stage of a horse's life in order to build muscle mass, help horses recover from exercise, and restore appetite.

The regulation of anabolic steroids is expected to become a contentious matter in racing over the next several months. In December, the Racing and Medication Consortium, a group that develops model rules for racing, is expected to release its model rule on anabolic steroid use, and the rule is likely to call for strict regulation of the drugs, which are not regulated in any racing jurisdiction but Iowa.

The publication of statistics highlighting whether a sire produces durable offspring is also expected to be controversial. Currently, statistics about stallions' progeny serve to highlight the good qualities of a sire's runners, and owners of stud farms - who are enjoying a boom in the bloodstock market - may resist the publication of negative data.

The recommendation to create a better monitoring system for racehorse injuries is already in development. Dr. Mary Scollay, the state veterinarian in Florida, is developing a form that she hopes to distribute to racing jurisdictions that would allow for uniform reporting of racetrack injuries. The intent is to develop a database that would collate all the information in the forms.

Other recommendations include distributing educational materials to racing licensees about the latest research on racehorse injuries; the mandatory implantation of micro-chips into horses to monitor horses' vital signs; the implementation of more difficult tests as a requirement for licensing; and more research into the impact of popular training and shoeing methods to determine if any of the techniques pose health risks to horses.