08/15/2002 11:00PM

Steroids: Common but controversial


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Anyone who has been in racing long enough has probably heard an "incredible shrinking horse" story.

It starts with a horse offered for auction in peak physical condition, with thick muscling through the shoulder, powerful hindquarters, a shiny coat, and well-developed long limbs. It typically ends three weeks later at a training facility or a racetrack, said New York trainer Lisa Lewis, when the horse "that looked like King Kong doesn't even look like the same horse anymore."

The incredible shrinking horse is not the fanciful creation of horsemen who fall in love with a sales yearling only to sober up and see the flaws two weeks later. Instead, it is a common side effect of one of racing's best-known secrets: the unregulated and widespread use of anabolic steroids, a practice that puts the racing industry in North America at odds with the rest of the racing world and nearly all other international sports, where anabolics are banned.

To some racing officials, the issue is a potential public relations nightmare and has created a debate about whether the sport needs to regulate the use of anabolics.

Anabolic steroids are synthetic hormones that can rapidly build muscle mass, ignite a horse's appetite, and help a horse recover from strenuous activity, and by all accounts they are a fact of life at U.S. racetracks and in the high-pressure world of horse sales. According to interviews with two dozen trainers, veterinarians, regulators, and sales consignors and buyers over the past two weeks, anabolic steroids are commonly used to build up young horses in order to get the best possible price at auction, and they are also commonly used on the racetrack to help horses eat well and maintain top physical condition.

Buyer beware

Many auction participants simply shrug off the phenomenon with a quick admonition of "let the buyer beware." And at the racetrack, the reaction is similar. Anabolic steroids are considered by many people to be a valuable therapeutic tool, given regularly to geldings and light fillies who do not respond well to the strenuous life of intense training sessions that are designed to get them to race at breakneck speed on hard racetracks.

In virtually every other international sport or venue, anabolic steroids are considered to be performance enhancers, and they have led to medals being stripped from Olympic athletes and to lengthy suspensions for trainers in other countries. Patrick Biancone, the French trainer now based in the U.S., received a 10-month suspension in Hong Kong in 1999, when at least one of his horses tested positive for an anabolic steroid.

The issue made headlines earlier this summer with reports of widespread use of anabolic steroids in Major League Baseball. Now some members of the U.S. racing industry are taking a hard look at anabolics as part of an effort to reform medication rules. The reformers, an industrywide coalition of more than 40 officials, last met on July 16 and put steroids on their agenda as a potential issue to address.

"There is a strong feeling - I know I personally come down on this side of the debate - there is a strong feeling that we need to step back and reevaluate the industry's use of steroids," said Lonny Powell, the executive director of the Association of Racing Commissioners International and a participant in the industry's reform effort. "It's tough enough to explain them to people in our own industry, and then when you bust through to the people out there at large, especially given what's happened in baseball this year, then you really start to have problems with the general public."

Anabolic steroids are legal in every U.S. racing jurisdiction except Iowa. They have been approved for use in horses by the Food and Drug Administration, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, which represents racetrack veterinarians, advocates the use of anabolics for therapeutic use. A doctor's prescription is required for people to use anabolic steroids, but athletes have found other ways to obtain the drugs.

Trainers and veterinarians estimate that most horses will at one time receive an anabolic steroid injection; most estimate that about a third of all horses receive regular administrations, usually from once every three weeks to once every six weeks, at a cost ranging from $20 to $50 a shot.

Therapy or performance enhancement?

While injections of testosterone, a naturally occurring hormone, were not uncommon when steroids first began to be used 30 years ago, most steroids used in racing now are the synthetic drugs stanozolol and boldenone undecylenate. stanozolol is marketed under the name Winstrol-V, the steroid favored by human athletes. Boldenone undecylenate is marketed as Equipoise, and it is much stronger than Winstrol, trainers said.

Anabolics can make some horses noticeably more aggressive and hypersexual, and in some cases unmanageable, according to horsemen.

"I think that if you are a bettor and you are looking into the paddock wondering who's on steroids, if you see a filly interested in other fillies then you've got a pretty good idea that she's on them," said Kent Stirling, a former trainer who is the executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Most horsemen said they do not believe that steroids are performance-enhancing, at least not like narcotics. That opinion is partly based on the time frame in which steroids are administered - long before a race and hardly ever on race day - and that anabolics impart long-term benefits to a horse, not a one-shot burst of speed.

But the performance-enhancing characteristics of a long-term regimen of steroids cannot be overlooked, some veterinarians contend. In "Equine Drugs and Vaccines," a book by Dr. Eleanor Kellon, written in consultation with Dr. Thomas Tobin, steroids are called performance enhancers because "the improved strength, vigor, and sense of well-being imparted by anabolic steroids are thought to give horses a competitive edge."

"The racing industry should take its cue from drug restrictions in place for human athletic competitions (and most foreign racing commissions) and ban the use of steroids," Kellon wrote. "The positive effects of anabolic steroids are undeniable."

Most trainers said they do not feel steroids should be banned, but that putting a horse on an intense dosage schedule, with injections every couple of days, would constitute abuse. Most trainers doubted that steroids were being administered to many racehorses that frequently, largely because of how anabolics make most horses unruly, especially when they are around other horses.

Still, without naming names, some trainers said that steroid abuse does occur. David Donk, who trains on the Florida-New York circuit, said that he sees some shedrows where "the vet just goes down the line with his needle out, and everybody gets a shot."

"There are outfits where they are on scheduled use," Donk said. "That's a no-brainer. Just look at some of the horses out there." Donk said he does not use steroids at all.

Lewis, the New York trainer, said that she uses steroids only on geldings and light fillies, on a once-every-six-week schedule. "We use it more for a horse where the training is too hard on them, where they just can't seem to get over the hump, where they're just not doing as well as you want them to," Lewis said.

Kiaran McLaughlin, a private trainer for members of the Maktoum family of Dubai who splits his time between New York and the Middle East - where steroid use is not permitted - said the benefits of steroids are overrated and that trainers could easily live without them.

"When I went to Dubai, it was seven days out on Bute [a painkiller], seven days out on all medications, and nothing on race day," McLaughlin said. "At first, it was like, 'Wow. Can this be done?' And it was no problem."

Some veterinarians, like Dr. Rick Arthur, a practicing vet in Southern California for 30 years, said that steroids are being used for the wrong reasons and that he would have "no problem if steroids were banned," largely because of how steroids are viewed in other countries. Arthur said that perhaps 5 percent of the horses he treats receive an anabolic injection at least once a year, mostly geldings, but that he is "the exception rather than the rule."

"You would have a hard time convincing me that this is a therapeutic medication," said Dr. Arthur, a past president of the AAEP who is also involved in the reform effort. "Therapeutic is when you are treating a specific problem. [Steroids are] a palliative. It covers up the signs of problems and it allows you to keep training a horse at a high level."

Juvenile sales a 'mine field'

Many horsemen said steroid abuse is more common in the sales arena, where it can be much more rewarding. A bulkier horse, especially when the muscle is strapped to a young, still-growing frame, may look like a healthier horse. A healthier horse may bring a better price, and for some breeders - especially small or struggling operations - a better price can mean the difference between a profit or loss for the year.

"At any sale, there's a finite deadline," said Barry Irwin, the president of Team Valor, a racing partnership that buys regularly at sales. "You have to be done with a horse by a certain date. But every horse is going to reach a limit with how far it can go. So you look at other things, things like steroids. You reach a decision: Do you stop or do you press on? The people that make the right decision in this industry are few and far between."

Nearly all auction participants said they believe that steroids are being abused, at both 2-year-old sales and yearling sales. But it was a much larger problem five or six years ago, buyers and consignors said, when it was difficult to tell which horses had been given steroids. Now, after experiencing the problem first hand, buyers are more savvy and more cautious.

"Some people get a reputation for steroid use," said Ken Ellenberg, a principal in Jerry Bailey Sales Agency, a leading pinhooking operation based in Florida. "Frankly, we'll usually just avoid them. You have no sure way of knowing, but if you have a history of buying a horse that looks great at the yearling sales and tends to fall apart after you get him home, then you have a pretty good suspicion that something's going on."

Kevin McKathan, a Florida pinhooker who advises several high-end clients, including Bob Baffert, said that the tales of abuse were exaggerations.

"Nowadays, the horses that look big and strong, they're using jogging machines, they swim them a lot, and that has a lot of the same effect as steroids on these horses," McKathan said. "You're getting more yearlings trained up like racehorses than you did in the past."

Barry Irwin, of Team Valor, called the 2-year-old sales a "minefield."

"I'm like everyone else," Irwin said. "I've bought horses, brought them home, and it's like someone pulled the plug and let the air out of them. You don't know what you are getting down there."

But even Irwin, like many people, does not see steroids as a real danger.

"I don't want to sound flip, but this is a minor thing compared to all the other crazy things that are going on out there," Irwin said. "The biggest problem in racing is where you see guys dominating, guys that are new to training or had never trained with any success before, you see guys now winning with any kind of horse that comes into their barn. Those guys are so far ahead of the curve that they will never get caught."

Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Task Force on Drug Testing and Medication and a leader in the reform effort, said that public's perception of the issue may hinge on the racing industry's ability to explain its case.

"You do have to recognize that it can be a public relations issue," he said. "But we're using them for different reasons than human athletes are. We're using them as therapeutic drugs rather than a performance enhancer. There's such a stigma out there because of the way that they are abused by human athletes without the realization that a horse is a completely different animal. A completely different animal."