06/05/2002 12:00AM

Racing closes in on a test for blood-enhancer EPO


NEW YORK - Racing officials said Tuesday that the first effective test for erythropoietin, the blood-enhancing agent commonly known as EPO, is nearly ready for regular use at racing laboratories.

The test, which had so far proved elusive to drug-testing officials in many sports around the world, would give racing a powerful tool to combat a drug that many horsemen and regulators say is being widely abused in racing. EPO, which is marketed under trade names like Epogen and Procrit, is thought to improve a horse's performance by boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells produced by the spleen.

"The toughest part is done," said one racing official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They just have to refine the methodology a little bit and then distribute it to all the other labs."

The test is being developed jointly by Dr. George Maylin of Cornell University in New York, Dr. Ken McKeever of Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Dr. Phil Lorimer of the New Jersey State Police laboratory. The scientists, who have received financial grants from the racing industry to perform the research, declined to speak about the progress of the test.

A lab scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the test had succeeded in detecting antibodies produced by a horse's immune system in response to an EPO injection. The scientist said that the test "needed some small refinements," but was otherwise nearly ready to be distributed to other labs. The labs would then determine if the results could be duplicated before bringing the test into official use.

Also, the scientist said that a different test, one that looks for an increase in transferrin receptors, was being aggressively explored as well. The receptors, which bind proteins together in order to ease the transportation of iron in the body, generally increase in a horse several hours after EPO is injected, and the levels stay elevated for weeks after use, the scientist said. The transferrin receptor test would give regulators a chance to detect EPO abuse before a horse runs.

As reports of blood doping have gathered strength over the past two years, racing regulators have struggled to come up with an accurate test to detect EPO and similar drugs, such as darbepoietin. The governing bodies of human endurance sports, including cycling, long-distance running, and cross-country skiing, have also encountered difficulties in establishing a test accurate enough to withstand legal challenges.

Overnight serves notice

At Belmont Park, where the third leg of the Triple Crown will be held Saturday, the New York Racing Association added a warning to its overnight last week stating that "the possession of blood-doping agents, i.e., Epogen, Procrit, and Aranesp and similar agents is strictly forbidden." The warning said a list of prohibited drugs "will be updated as necessary."

Terry Meyocks, the chief operating officer of NYRA, said that NYRA added the warning after he attended recent meetings with racing officials about reforming medication rules and drug-testing in the United States.

"We strongly believe that Epogen and other blood-doping agents do not have a legitimate value in the racetrack practice," Meyocks said.

Meyocks added that New York regulators would conduct spot checks of trainers and veterinarians, "as we have done for the last four or five years," and that NYRA is requiring all horses running Saturday to be on the grounds of Belmont Park by

8 a.m. instead of noon.

Two racing officials who attended the drug reform meetings said that the warning was affixed to the NYRA overnight to put horsemen on notice that the EPO test was about to be implemented.

"Epogen is something that stays in the system a long time," the official said. "It takes a while to get out. So that's why you're seeing these warnings right now It's to tell everybody to stop using it."

In April, the Association of Racing Commissioners International passed a model rule that barred possession of EPO and other blood-doping agents. The rule targeted possession of the drugs because of the inability to detect them in tests.

A horsemen's official said on Tuesday that NYRA regulators have been warning trainers and veterinarians over the past several weeks that EPO possession would be treated harshly.

"I was told that if they find anyone with it, they are going to treat it like a Class 1 violation," said the horsemen's official. "They said the vet and the trainer are going to get hammered." The recommended penalty for a Class 1 violation is a one-to-five year suspension and a $5,000 fine. EPO is currently a Class 2 drug.

Cardiac danger seen

Although EPO is thought to improve performance, research has shown that the drug is also dangerous to horses. Some research has claimed that for the drug to be effective in horses, the dosage would have to be so large that the horse's blood would thicken to the point where it would induce cardiac arrest.

"There's such a small window where you can get the red blood cells up before the viscosity of the blood gets so thick that you give the horse a heart attack," said Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association task force on medication. "Obviously, people are using it, but I wonder if anyone is using it at such large doses."

Stacy Walker, a spokeswoman for the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, said regulators had been hearing speculation about widespread EPO use in New York since the Breeders' Cup in October. She said the board is reviewing its rules and "seeking industry comment" on how to treat EPO abuse in the state.

"We are looking at our medication rules quite seriously," Walker said.