08/27/2008 12:00AM

Steroid test plan gains speed


DEL MAR, Calif. - Fans of old fashioned gang rumbles had to love the scene at Del Mar last weekend when the Sharks and the Jets - sorry, the Headleys and the Sadlers - mixed it up in the Del Mar tunnel over perceived violations of steroid rules and general accusations of moral disorder. Taunts and harsh language gave way to physical contact. And while no one went down, decorum suffered, and at some point the board of stewards probably will be involved.

The brushfire was fueled no doubt by the actions of certain racing board officials earlier in the week, including chairman Richard Shapiro, who spiced up a board meeting by waving a piece of paper implicating certain "unnamed" but painfully apparent trainers in ongoing steroid use.

One of them, John Sadler, said he might sue, which is certainly his right. His best response, however, was to pre-test his headline starters for last weekend's major Del Mar events and then win two of them, with Dearest Trickski in the Rancho Bernardo Handicap and Whatsthescript in the Del Mar Mile.

Shapiro had hard science on his side, if not discretion. During July, when detection of steroids commenced, there were 38 positives called for levels in excess of established limits, from 418 urine samples collected at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. According to the phased-in plan, only notices were issued for those positives, along with counseling. The fact that 28 of the 38 positives were clustered in two stables probably made the counseling more efficient, if not particularly effective.

The calling out of alleged violators in a public forum might feel good, especially when there were no penalties at stake. But trial by media also can muddy the efforts of enforcement and cloud the real issues at hand. Still, the press loved Shapiro's heartfelt theatrics, and last week we were on a steady diet of red meat. On steroids.

In the meantime, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board preferred to take a more subdued tack and look at the glass as 90 percent full. Dr. Rick Arthur, point man for California's new steroids rules, has contended from the beginning of the rule change process that limiting steroid use in active racehorses would be a win-win-win proposition for horsemen, horseplayers, and horses.

"I became a cynic on the use of anabolic steroids when I saw the way it changed how horses were trained," Arthur said. "John Kimmel, who was a practicing veterinarian before he was a trainer, stood up at a meeting of the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) about three years ago and asked, 'When are we going to ban anabolic steroids?'

"His argument was that anabolic steroids allow you to train a horse harder than you would naturally be able to train that horse," Arthur said. "If you consider the fact that training intensity has been related to racing fatalities, I don't think it's a long stretch from one to the other."

Arthur had a well-established private backstretch practice in California until he took the CHRB position two years ago.

"I certainly used anabolic steroids, but I rarely prescribed them," Arthur said. "They were almost always administered at the request of trainers."

Which makes veterinarians at the very least enablers, with an economic interest, in a culture dating back decades.

"When you consider that this was a monumental change in the way horse racing does business, I think that things have gone amazingly well," Arthur said. "Last March and April we did surveys, and 60 percent of the horses were on anabolic steroids. Most trainers found a way to live without them.

"As far as this warning period is concerned, I had one e-mail excoriating me for being so naive that I could count on the ethics of horse trainers," he added. "But in fact, the compliance rate is rather phenomenal. The vast majority of horsemen appreciated that the rule was in effect, and they ethically responded to try to meet the goals that were set out, whether they agreed with them or not. A couple of guys didn't."

Asked about more recent testing, Arthur acknowledged that there would be more headlines to come. Beginning Aug. 1, positive steroid tests for excess levels were treated as Class 4 medication violations, although without the threat of traditional fines. A trainer would be served notice and given the option of testing a split sample. If the split option was waived, or the split confirmed the original finding, a formal complaint would be issued. From 270 samples taken at Del Mar, Arthur said there were four positives in August, all from the same trainer, and awaiting final confirmation. There were also three steroid positives in Northern California, he said, also from a single trainer.

Then, beginning Sept. 4, steroid positives in California will be Class 3 violations, which involves potential loss of purse money, fines, and suspensions. Other states where steroids have been allowed, such as Kentucky and Louisiana, are following suit.

"We have to do whatever we can to make racing safer for horses," Arthur said. "Some people may disagree that this is the way to go, but I think there's enough evidence to support this step. I am absolutely confident that the winner in this is the horse."