12/07/2006 1:00AM

Panel urges ban on steroids


TUCSON, Ariz. - The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium recommended Thursday that the racing industry immediately prohibit the use of anabolic steroids, citing the potential for the drugs to damage the perception of racing.

The recommendation was made by Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, during a panel at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming and is certain to be controversial.

Anabolic steroids are in widespread use at every stage of a horse's career in this country, intended to build muscle mass, restore appetite, and calm high-strung fillies.

The United States is the only racing country that does not ban anabolic steroids, which are associated with disrepute in other sports. Dr. Arthur cited the country's isolation on the world stage as a principal reason for implementing the ban, along with fears that knowledge of racing's tolerance of drugs could lead to a crackdown by federal legislators.

"The only reason we've ducked this issue so far is because no one knows that they are legal," Dr. Arthur said. "Hopefully, we can move forward with this and bring American racing to the same level as Europe, and South Asia, and the major racing jurisdictions of the world, because they've taken this step a long, long time ago."

The RMTC, which recommends model rules for racing, has been studying steroid use since the beginning of the year. Racing commissions have adopted nearly all of the RMTC's recommendations in the past.

Separately, the Association of Racing Commissioners International is studying steroid use and is also expected to endorse the ban.

Under the recommendation, anabolic steroids would be considered Class 3 drugs, Arthur said. Testing for the drugs could be easily implemented under existing procedures in use in other countries, he said. He called on horse sales companies to test for anabolic steroids in order to discourage their use on young horses before auctions.

"It can be done," Arthur said. "It can be done effectively, it can be done efficiently, and it's well overdue."

Tackling catastrophic injuries

At an earlier panel Thursday, two leading veterinarians and a Chicago-based trainer called on the industry to collect detailed data on racing-related injuries to help prevent catastrophic injuries.

The panelists said that it is difficult to predict what contributes to catastrophic injuries because of a lack of good research and post-mortem analysis of breakdowns, a subject that has become prominent this year because of the high-profile injury suffered by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and a series of fatal breakdowns at Arlington Park outside Chicago and Del Mar in Southern California.

The panelists were Dr. Arthur; Dr. Jerry Pack, a state veterinarian for the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission; and Christine Janks, a leading Illinois trainer and breeder.

The three agreed that, anecdotally, racing related-injuries are more common among certain trainers, and they pointed to the widespread use of corticosteroids, which are injected into sore joints in order to relieve pain, as a contributing factor.

Janks, pointing to the breakdowns at Arlington last summer, said that too much had been made of track conditions in fatal injuries and that trainers bear much of the blame.

"When you took a look at the breakdowns, the same trainer names appeared on quite a few of them," she said.

Dr. Pack, who completed a 10-year study of breakdowns at Penn National Race Course, said that the data for the study was "highly skewed by one individual," whom he declined to name. The trainer accounted for 10 percent of the 272 fatal breakdowns at the track, Pack said.

"He is scrutinized more than anyone else on the backside. His horses look great when he brings them over, they all check out, and then he breaks them down," Pack said.

Pack said that as a result of the study, few signs emerged that help predict whether a horse would have a catastrophic breakdown other than the use of toe-grab horseshoes. Recently, a number of veterinarians and researchers have called for the ban of toe grabs, citing study results in California.

The panelists said that being more aggressive about pre-race examinations seemed to help, not at isolating horses that had the potential to suffer catastrophic breakdowns but at forcing trainers to be careful about which horses they entered.

Dr. Arthur said that the increased use of medication needs be reversed for race-related injuries to decline. "The reality is that we are losing some of our horsemenship, people don't have a feel for the horses," he said. "There's a big emphasis on veterinary care today that wasn't there in the past."