10/17/2005 11:00PM

Racing needs this expert

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Suddenly, on Tuesday of this week, the huge problem that horse racing faces exploded in an unexpected place: the pages of the highly respected Washington Post.

A long story, by Post staff writer Amy Shipley, was headlined, "Chemists Stay a Step Ahead of Drug Testers," with a subhead reading, "Internet Offers New Steroids Designed to be Undetectable."

The story was not about horse racing. But those who could not read between the lines, or preferred not to, will hear long echoes of this story for months to come, and the name of the man central in it, Dr. Don Catlin of UCLA.

Already known worldwide in baseball and Olympic sports, he hopefully will become a familiar name to owners and trainers in racing. They can learn what may be happening to their horses from him, a lesson some sadly know already, inside and out.

Dr. Catlin addressed the Jockey Club Round Table in August and gave a few hints of how difficult the problem is for horse racing. Not long afterward, Nick Nicholson, president of Keeneland, and breeder Will Farish announced an effort to underwrite new testing efforts under Dr. Catlin's direction. Catlin directs the U.S. Olympic drug testing lab at UCLA, and is the man who broke the Balco scandal in baseball by uncovering, two years ago, tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG.

Shipley's Post story was both enlightening and frightening.

It began, "If members of Congress leading efforts to eradicate performance-enhancing drugs from athletics want to get an idea of just how difficult it will be, they need only turn to the Internet."

She explained, "The Web already offers a new generation of steroids designed to avoid current tests."

And she gave graphic evidence of just how easy it is to get them.

The Post bought five dietary supplements online - each of which touted its ability to build muscle fast - and sent them to Dr. Catlin for analysis. He found that four of them contained previously unidentified anabolic steroids. Another was discovered only two years ago, and was thought to be in limited circulation.

Dr. Catlin told the Post: "They are all steroids. They are all going to be effective." And they ranged in cost from $50 to $125 a bottle.

The Post story continued: "This might just be the beginning. Two officials with prominent U.S. dietary supplement companies, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it is easy for companies to outwit drug testers. 'There's an unlimited pool of steroids,' one official said. 'You could do this for the next 100 years. . . . The longer they don't pay attention the more rampant it gets.'"

These compounded drugs have put the chemists far ahead of the testers, in professional sports and just as surely in racing. As Ms. Shipley points out, they can do it "just by slightly altering the chemical properties of known banned drugs or by turning to long-forgotten recipes from steroid cookbooks from the 1950's and 1960's."

Dr. Catlin said, "It's pretty obvious what's going on. The companies are making tons of money. If they don't get caught, they turn on the spigot and turn out more."

Then this from the Post: "The supplement company officials said the lenient sentences handed down in the Balco probe seem to have emboldened U.S. companies to delve into the distribution of newly created designer steroids, moving an industry previously the secret domain of black-market chemists, tight-lipped middlemen, and small groups of elite athletes into the mainstream."

It is interesting that horse racing's early efforts to enlist Dr. Catlin's help already have been criticized by some, and not-too-subtle efforts have been made to discredit Dr. Catlin's racing credentials. It has been pointed out, for example, that he is not a veterinarian, and not an expert on horses or horse racing.

He is, of course, perhaps the leading authority in the world on one of the most serious problem horse racing faces, a problem that racing in its past spirit of denial would rather not acknowledge. It is folly to think that those seeking an edge in racing would hesitate to use substances known to build strength, regardless of what veterinarians say about differences in horses and humans.

The issue of the Nicholson-Farish proposal to enlist Dr. Catlin's aid and where it fits in the work of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium is being discussed by the parties this week in Lexington, Ky.

Both Dr. Catlin's participation and the work of the Racing Consortium are critical to the welfare of the sport, and hopefully horse racing will not miss the opportunity to avail itself of Dr. Catlin's expertise.