02/05/2008 12:00AM

Steroid reform under assault

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TUCSON, Ariz. - "We are for the regulation of anabolic steroids, but not the banning of them. Steroids can be a good therapeutic medication."

With that battle cry, Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and chairman of the national horsemen's association's medication committee, fired the opening round in a successful attack on the anti-steroid recommendations of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, of which he is a board member. Stirling said mistakes were made in the drafting of the model rule and it is "not quite ready for prime time." He said he was not bashing the consortium, but he gave a superb imitation.

Sterling's salvo was followed quickly by another member of the consortium's board, Maryland racing attorney Alan Foreman, CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. It was one more example of how difficult it is to accomplish anything significant in racing, and how easy it is to block progress. Stirling and Foreman undoubtedly believe what they say, but a number of the horsemen they serve would like to see anti-steroid rules delayed forever.

There was more static in the air on the issue. Dr. Steven Barker, chemist for the Louisiana State Racing Commission, told those horsemen assembled for the their association's convention meeting in New Orleans what they wanted to hear. Dr. Barker is not a member of the medication and testing consortium, and he swung low and hard.

Barker realizes that horsemen in general know very little of the workings of the consortium, largely because it has spent the first five years of its life fighting for financial survival and neglected, until recently, any serious public relations efforts. It was vulnerable to attack.

Barker called the consortium's model rule "an embarrassment," and said, "The group that put this together should be taken out and beaten. What we've heard is an awful lot of misinformation and mythology."

Who should be beaten and who is reciting mythology is a matter of personal viewpoint. It takes chutzpah to discredit European scientists whose work Barker disparages as the basis of the consortium rules, and imply that the state of Louisiana has the answers.

The leaders of the 23 racing organizations that support the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium have spent long hours and sizeable dollars on its behalf. They do not think its model rule is an embarrassment. They think it is a necessity for racing.

The damage wrought by the Stirling-Barker-Foreman attack surfaced almost immediately after the New Orleans mischief, with Maryland announcing it would delay implementation of the steroid rule for a year. By that time, if slots are not approved by Maryland voters next November, the issue of steroids in Maryland horses may be moot.

Pennsylvania is shooting for testing by April 1. New Jersey thinks it might be ready by June. John Wayne, executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission, hopes to have steroid testing in place when Delaware Park opens on April 19. New York and Virginia are preparing. Wayne said Delaware was doing the right thing in keeping the health of the horse foremost in mind, and his forceful harness racing counterpart, Hugh Gallagher, was equally adamant and committed. Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission, said he was surprised at Maryland's decision to hold off, but he believed everyone else in the region was committed to moving forward this year. Even the major auction sales have gotten a little needed religion on the issue.

The strategy of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Foreman worked. Although the chairman of the medication consortium, Dr. Robert Lewis, said, "Our entire board firmly believes that the regulation of anabolic steroids in racehorses is essential to the integrity of horse racing and the welfare of the horse," the consortium took a few steps back. It said it would announce reduction in test costs and improvement of the tests themselves by August, but strongly reaffirmed its endorsement of having all states on board by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Stirling and Foreman, who both have horsemen for constituents and clients, have given those horsemen what the loudest of them want - a safe haven for another year - with Steven Barker as their raucous voice.

Stirling and Foreman scored a victory for their horsemen, and damaged the medication consortium in doing so. Whether they scored a victory for racing, or damaged it as well, remains to be seen.

For the love of racehorses and concern for their health and welfare, and for those who bet and enjoy them, racing had better stay the course on ridding itself of steroids.

Big Brother is watching in Foggy Bottom.