09/26/2005 12:00AM

State takes over carbon dioxide testing of horses

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ARCADIA, Calif. - With the beginning of the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita on Wednesday, the California Horse Racing Board will now conduct total carbon dioxide testing for milkshakes, a process that had been overseen by racetracks until a bill was passed and signed by the governor earlier this month and new rules approved.

Under the board, violations for milkshakes will be subject to fines, suspensions, and loss of purse money. Under racetrack house rules, violators were merely subject to subsequent surveillance, including having to run their horses out of a detention barn. In addition, trainers will now have the opportunity for split-sample testing, which was not offered by the tracks.

Milkshakes, or alkalizing agents, are thought to allow horses to stave off fatigue by delaying the buildup of lactic acid in muscles.

The oversight of TCO2 testing is the latest area in which the racing board has become more assertive under the leadership of Ingrid Fermin, who took over as the executive director earlier this year. While applauded for making the board far more visible, accessible, and pro-active than her predecessor, Roy Wood, Fermin and the board are now being questioned by trainers who say that some of the board's actions appear arbitrary.

Doug O'Neill, a perennial leading trainer on the circuit, said that a series of actions aimed at him or those associated with him show that the board is not treating everyone equally. In February, racing board investigators asked to examine the O'Neill-trained Grand Appointment four days after he won the Sensational Star Handicap. In July, jockey Felipe Martinez was examined by board investigators after riding the O'Neill-trained Whilly to victory in the American Handicap. O'Neill said that vans transporting horses of his to and from the track have been stopped and searched by the board.

"They said the thing after the Sensational Star was random, but as far as I know it only happened to me," O'Neill said. "There haven't been any van shakedowns lately. They said it was random, but I think it only happened to me. And the stuff with Felipe, they said that was random, but it only happened with a horse I trained. The sport has to be policed, and there's definitely merit to some of the things the CHRB has done, but some of this is way over the top."

Fermin said that she did not know how many vans had been searched and that the searches were initiated at the regional "supervisor level," not by her. She did not know how many horses, such as Grand Appointment, had been examined several days after a race.

"A lot of it is for informational purposes," she said. Fermin said she was unaware of the Martinez situation "until I read it in the paper." She had no statistics on how many times other riders had been examined this year.

"It's not uncommon to check whips and weights," she said.

Regarding O'Neill's claim that he was subject to more arbitrary incidents with the racing board than others, Fermin said, "I think Mr. O'Neill is reading more into it than there is."

Other trainers voiced concern about arbitrary actions by the board.

"Who decides that someone is winning too much?" said trainer Ron Ellis. "If you have a high TCO2 test, that's different. You should be subject to scrutiny. But to order surveillance because someone arbitrarily thinks you're winning too much, that's wrong."

Last week, the board took the first step toward having detention stalls with cameras in each trainer's barn. A trainer would have to move a horse into that stall on race day.

"I'm the first one who thinks they should do more, and I applaud them for some of the things they've done," Ellis said. "They obviously uncovered a lot of milkshaking that was going on. But it's a step too far when they are arbitrarily asking you to put a horse in a detention stall because someone thinks you're winning too much. And it is punishment to move a horse to a foreign stall, even if it's your own barn. You might as well have everybody go to a detention barn."

"We have the toughest testing in the country right now," trainer Mike Mitchell said. "I commend them for that. But in some ways, they're treating us like a bunch of criminals."