11/16/2004 12:00AM

A shot across racing's bow

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The ugly villain of racing walked out of the shadows and into the spotlight of world attention, center stage once again, Sunday morning. Drugs were back in a starring role.

Police in New Zealand have been investigating for months the racing use of Blue Magic, as the bronchodilator propantheline bromide is known Down Under.

Last Friday, on the day of the country's biggest harness race, the New Zealand Cup at Addington in Christchurch, Harness Racing New Zealand announced that John Seaton, multimillionaire owner of the year and chief patron of the country's most successful harness trainer, Mark Purdon, was being charged with three acts detrimental to racing. Purdon earlier had been charged with two pending counts of illegal drug use.

Seaton went ballistic, violently and publicly berating national racing and security officials at the track.

Sunday morning, the New Zealand Herald reported, "No date has been set for the charges, but Seaton is certain to defend them, as far as his personal fortune, estimated at $35 million, will allow."

The story was wrong.

As early risers were reading it in the Sunday Herald, John Seaton died of a gunshot in an apparent suicide, according to the editor of the official magazine of Harness Racing New Zealand.

His death was the second since the Blue Magic investigation turned serious in July, when an accused supplier named Robert Asquith was found dead, presumably by his own hand.

In August, a trainer named Nigel McGrath was found guilty of administering propantheline bromide to his horses on three occasions, in feed or by injection. He said he did it to treat his horses' ulcers because vets' treatments were too expensive, and he acknowledged that while he knew it enhanced his horses' performance, he didn't consider it illegal because doctors and chemists told him they saw no reason why it would be. He said he kept his "treatment" secret because all trainers "seek an edge" and he wanted to protect his.

He was suspended for three years. Some horsemen called it an honest mistake.

What evidence came to light against Seaton and Purdon during the investigation is not known, but it was serious enough for a government regulatory agency to bring charges against two of the most prominent men in racing in that country. Whether Seaton killed himself because he was guilty or because he was innocent may never be known, but it seems unlikely that regulators would have taken on the wealthiest and most powerful owner in the sport on a whim.

This is sad and sorry and scary stuff, and so are all performance-enhancing drugs in racing. Blue Magic is here, too, and it would be foolish to think it is breed specific. Cases have been reported in at least three states. There are multiple tests that can reveal it, but they are not always used.

Barry Irwin of Team Valor recently editorialized on the need for a national independent drug regulatory agency, the kind that has uncovered wrongdoing in track and field. He wrote that it would be expensive, and he is right. It has cost track and field millions, and it would cost horse racing millions to do the kind of research needed.

But those millions are available and easily within reach.

If racing bit the bullet and imposed a $5 fee per race for each starter for top-level worldwide research, in all breeds, it could in the years ahead level the tilted playing field. Owners and trainers would pay such a fee to rid racing of cheats. The idea currently is "in committee," but not in play.

Racing spends millions on ads and commercials preaching to the choir, millions on economic impact studies, millions on Rudy Giuliani reporting that racing has a long heritage and needs to adjust to the Internet, millions on studies that glowingly report growing public interest in racing while attendance plummets.

There is a big difference between spending millions on those noble and falsely comforting efforts and spending millions to find presently undetectable drugs and better tests for those already detectable, along with long and meaningful punishment for those who use them.

The difference is that no one is killing themselves over happy commercials or Internet betting or economic impact studies or pious pronouncements.

John Seaton fired a shot last Sunday that should be heard around the racing world. Whether it is, or whether it echoes in the eerie silence of racing's self delusion, remains to be seen.