10/13/2008 12:00AM

Steroid ban altering game


During the summer, a shock wave of change suddenly and irrevocably came to the once sleepy sport of Thoroughbred horse racing.

The change for racing was partly stimulated by a congressional committee's investigation into steroid use in baseball three years ago and by a subsequent hearing in June 2008 about horse safety and drugs in Thoroughbred racing.

Although anabolic steroids have been banned in European racing for more than 30 years, the catalyst for progressive action in America did not come until Eight Belles pulled up irreparably lame in both front legs while galloping out after her second-place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

The autopsy revealed no illegal drugs of any kind, but that did not stop radical anti-racing groups from attacking the sport's safety practices with a fury not previously seen. The attack may have been excessive and the congressional hearing inconclusive, but the intense scrutiny spurred a flurry of activity by industry insiders and racing commissioners.

Ultra-hard racing surfaces were viewed as contributing to the alarming increase in catastrophic breakdowns at many tracks. So too was the insidious, virtually unregulated use of steroids.

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has since developed a set of model rules limiting the use of steroids

Several states in the mid-Atlantic region set deadline dates to eliminate steroids for yearling sales and racing purposes. Kentucky passed new rules and regulations to do the same despite resistance from several Kentucky-based racetrack vets. Breeders' Cup officials declared that steroids would be barred from their races and no future Breeders' Cup days would be granted to any state that did not follow suit.

Most important and most public of all was the action taken by the California Horse Racing Board, whose sensitivity to breakdowns was expressed in 2005 with its controversial decision to insist on the replacement of several dirt tracks with synthetic racing surfaces.

That somewhat premature mandate in the name of horse health invited inevitable track maintenance difficulties. The imperfections in California's synthetic tracks have been dealt with one track at a time, with more adjustments still to come. But the CHRB already can point to fewer catastrophic breakdowns at the four California tracks with different synthetic surfaces.

Of equal, if not more importance to the health of the game itself, the CHRB took the next step forward in May 2008, essentially banning steroid use at its tracks beginning Sept. 1.

Only four steroids are now allowed to appear in post-race tests - nandrolone, (manufactured as Durlobin); boldenone, (Equipoise), stanozolol (Winstrol), and testosterone - and only in minute quantities as the CHRB has adopted strict testing thresholds.

During Del Mar this summer, dozens of steroid positives were reported to the CHRB without penalty as trainers were given the opportunity to wean away from use of these drugs. But in September, as the grace period for illegal steroid use ended, there was one lingering question that horseplayers specifically focused on: Would the steroid ban have any effect on trainers who typically had been enjoying very high win percentages?

While no iron clad conclusions can possibly be drawn from only three weeks of racing under the new, stricter guidelines, the stats from the current Oak Tree meet are worth building upon for future analysis.

With that in mind, I asked Rob Henie, a sharp Southern California-based professional horseplayer to carry out a quick study on the win rates for Southern California-based trainers at the current Oak Tree meet. Henie regularly compiles a wide range of stats and information for his own use, while sharing useful data with private clients and friends via e-mails and web postings.

Henie's stats, mixed in with some obtained from Santa Anita's publicity department and Daily Racing Form records, compare current Oak Tree win rates (through Oct. 12) by trainers who had enjoyed remarkable success at Del Mar and for the current calendar year. Again, because the new CHRB regulations have only been in effect for a month, it must be pointed out that we will need more than a three week sampling to get a solid fix on this new world without steroids. That said, here are the early stats Henie provided.

John Sadler won at a 26 percent rate during Del Mar while reportedly incurring several steroid positives during the grace period. At Oak Tree, Sadler's win rate dropped to 14 percent until he won 3 of 7 starts on the weekend to put him close to his 20 percent average for the year.

Jeff Mullins, a 21 percent winner at Del Mar and for 2008, was blanked with his first 15 Oak Tree starters until he won a race on Oct. 11. With 2 wins in 23 Oak Tree starters, Mullins stands at 9 percent for the current meet.

Brian Koriner, who won at 17 percent for the year and 19 percent at Del Mar, has won 2 races from his first 16 at Oak Tree for 13 percent.

Jerry Hollendorfer won at 25 percent during Del Mar, by far his best work in Southern California after years of just a token presence in this region. At Oak Tree, he has won 3 from his 24 starters through Oct. 12 for 13 percent, which closely approximates his previous success rate in Southern California prior to his breakthrough 2008 Del Mar meet. For more than two decades, Hollendorfer has been a solid 24 percent winner in Northern California.

Carla Gaines, a consistent 22 percent trainer for 2008 and at Del Mar. has won with 3 of her first 10 at Oak Tree for 30 percent.

Mike Mitchell, a consistent force on this circuit, hit at 23 percent at Del Mar and has maintained virtually the same rate with 6 for 22 at Oak Tree.

Doug O'Neill lost five races on Oct. 12 but has maintained consistent stats across the board. He was a 14 percent winner at Del Mar; 15 percent for 2008 and has won 7 from 48 starts at Oak Tree for 14 percent.

Jack Carava was a 15 percent winner at Del Mar after going 11 percent for the year and has returned to a similar 10 percent strike rate with 2 for 20 for the first three weeks of Oak Tree. Obviously, as with many on this list, there are no statistically significant trends in so few starters to date.

Peter Miller, however has some interesting stats, partially skewered towards his consistent success at Del Mar, where last year he was a phenomenon and this year he scored with a credible 17 percent of all starters. For 2008, Miller is at 11 percent, while at Oak Tree he has not yet won a race in 15 attempts.

Kathy Walsh was having the best year of her career with 26 percent winners until she got off to a slow start at Oak Tree. Walsh won once with her first 10 Oak Tree tries.

While it is folly to put a stamp of certainty on any of the above stats, it is interesting that some trainers who were not doing so well through the year have increased their strike rates in the aftermath of the steroid ban.

Hall of Famer Ron McAnally, a superb, old school horseman was a 7 percent winner this year, but has won with 3 of 22 Oak Tree starters for 14 percent.

Martin F. Jones, an 11 percent winner at Del Mar and 11 percent for the year has won with 5 of his first 11 starters for a hefty 45 percent at Oak Tree. Roger Stein has gone from 7 percent for the year to 27 percent at Oak Tree, winning 3 of his first 11.

Darrell Vienna, another old school horseman, was winning at a modest 11 percent for the year and was a virtual non factor at Del Mar, but has won three of his first eight at OSA for 37 percent, the same OSA percentage for low profile Gary Sherlock who also won with 3 of his first 8.

Conclusion? None that can be cited with any certainty.

Early trends? The first run of stats say that some high percentage trainers may lose some percentage points in the non steroid era; others will go on as always. A handful would seem to be enjoying their best meets of the year, the first meet in which steroids have been banned in the state.