07/14/2009 12:00AM

Some still have head in the sand on drugs


TUCSON, Ariz. - Television's frenzied fortnight of deification and attempted resurrection of Michael Jackson has blurred the horizons of news this July.

Some significant stories have been underplayed, including one in racing. It would not have made television even if Jackson had not died, but it deserved far more play than it received in the racing press.

It was a speech given at the summer meeting of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association by the HBPA's favorite cheerleader on the subject of medication, Dr. Stephen Barker, chief chemist of the Louisiana Racing Commission and head of its testing laboratory.

He informed the HBPA, and the rest of us racing rascals, that the sport in America "does not have a drug problem."

He blames the hubbub and furor on that issue on widespread contamination of samples and the zero tolerance policy, which he says is meaningless, although "to the public, press, and regulators, it's the gold standard."

He believes there is nothing serious going on, because "if people were using drugs to influence the outcome of races, we'd find them."

If Dr. Barker really believes that, he needs to leave his laboratory in Baton Rouge and walk into the scented air of backstretches across the country, and sit down and talk to the men and women who try to make honest livings training and racing horses. They do not have PhDs or expensive equipment to back their beliefs, but they know horses and what they can and cannot do under normal circumstances, and they feel their professions and livelihoods are being damaged and destroyed by cheaters who have access to drugs and compounds that Dr. Barker and his colleagues cannot find.

If Dr. Barker is correct, and we do not have a drug problem but simply perception of one, it needs a full and thorough airing, including the views of other chemists who know they are running far behind drug compounders and others who keep throwing extremely difficult problems in their path.

It might be helpful and instructive if the upcoming Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, which apparently does not share Dr. Barker's view that we do not have a problem and will instead discuss the issue of what to do about it, heard from some of the wretches of the backstretch who think - make that know - they are fighting an unequal battle.

Those honest people, representing the vast majority in horse racing, know how tough their jobs are with all things equal, and they do not believe for a minute that equality exists. For some reason, perhaps living longer than many of my contemporaries or being considered some sort of chaplain, which on past performance I clearly have no qualifications for, I keep receiving mail from these people, complaining and seeking help.

Few of them believe that the amazing win percentages and track performances of horses posted by some trainers they must race against - Thoroughbred or harness - are attributable to equipment changes or new training techniques unknown to the great trainers who preceded them. These people do not believe someone can step in and suddenly transform ordinary performers into stakes winners or superstars, or have every head hanging out of their stalls post remarkable performances.

Those in the honest majority do not show up on gas chromatographs and other sophisticated equipment. They have no scientific backgrounds to prove their beliefs. They simply know inherently what can and cannot be done by humans training racehorses, and they know when aberrations tilt the scales.

The notion, often expressed, that this is a case of mass envy does not fly. Few can be found who belittle or demean the accomplishments of those they consider honest horsemen. But they resent those who they have reason to believe are not.

Dr. Barker claims that if contamination, which may well exist, were eradicated, 80 percent of the positives would disappear and racing's reputation would improve.

This is reminiscent of the oft-published claims from racing sources of how few positives really show up, when based on the number of starters. Obviously if you can't find something that is being used, there won't be positive tests for it. Big gamblers, who used to populate racing in numbers, are smart. They evaluate things on their own scale, scientific or not, and on personal observation, and many have deserted the sport because they perceive it to have chemical problems.

Those problems of perception do not lie with people who cover racing for a living. They rest with those who know they and their druggists can beat the present system and choose to do so, and with others in the game, but not on the track, who continue to race in the silks of denial.