08/21/2001 12:00AM

Racing's drug war a high-wire act


TUCSON, Ariz. - Sunday's Jockey Club Round Table at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., featured a thrilling high-wire act. One of racing's good guys, Jim Gallagher, slipped into a pair of ballet slippers, was helped onto a thin cable, handed a long balancing pole, and eased out over the treacherous chasm of illegal medication with the warning, "Whatever you do, don't look down!"

Gallagher danced delicately across the gaping void. When he made it to the other side the assembled moguls and minions of the host Jockey Club and National Thoroughbred Racing Association exhaled. As it turned out, they relaxed too soon.

Gallagher, the head of the NTRA's drug task force, revealed his group's findings: Out of 1,272 postrace urine samples that had already tested clean, 1.7 percent contained class 1, 2, or 3 drugs.

Step two for the powers that be was to minimize the findings and avoid adverse publicity on the key issue: Namely, that horsemen are using substances that present-day tests can't detect.

One solution offered - neither original nor startling - was that racing needs to adopt uniform medication rules. Ten years ago, the McKinsey Report had urged the same thing, but it was left on a shelf, gathering dust, for a decade.

Uniform medication rules are desperately needed in horse racing of all breeds, for the welfare of trainers and owners and the public alike. And having an industry-wide task force with guts and resolve is indeed a sound approach. But who will monitor the commissioners who have discussed this issue for eons, displayed firm oratorical accord, and then avoided actually doing anything?

The issue will be tackled again in Tucson, Ariz., in less than four months by the men who face the firing line daily: the veterinarians. They are convening a select committee on Dec. 4, during the symposium of the Race Track Industry Program of the University of Arizona, to discuss how to rein in the sport's drug problem.

Despite assurances in Saratoga that all is well, all is not well - and all on the backstretches of the land know it. Others know it too: The headline of a story in the online edition of The New York Times by Joe Drape read: "Despite Study's Findings, No One Calls Sport Clean."

While all of this was going on at Saratoga, a dangerous development in the American west went largely unnoticed.

A pharmaceutical company announced that it was in the trial stages of developing a new blood enhancer, which could extend endurance by super oxygenization. This, of course, is epogen, the scourge that has caused havoc in bicycle racing in Europe and - less publicized but no less prevalent - is being used in horse racing in this country.

There currently is no test to detect epogen. The task force acknowledged as much when Gallagher said, "We do have other findings that indicate there are certain drugs being used that are falling outside the radar screen of some laboratories, and there are certainly gaps and voids in current testing procedures that we would like to see closed." That was reinforced outside the comfortable halls of Saratoga when a well-placed official, speaking of the task force's findings, told the Daily Racing Form, "There were some things they found that had absolutely no business being in a racehorse. Synthetics and designer drugs. Things that aren't even legal for humans to have in them."

The company developing the super epogen said it already had developed a test for the product, but that the test would detect the substance for only 24 hours after administration.

The assembled leaders in Saratoga have their work cut out for them. Wish them well.