Updated on 09/17/2011 10:54PM

Steroids still in game, for now


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The timing probably could have been better, and the two stories were unrelated. Still, the back-to-back headlines tended to bleed into each other last week when Victor Conte, the chemist behind baseball's BALCO steroid scandal, began serving a four-month prison sentence on the same day that trainer Doug O'Neill revealed that multiple stakes winner Whilly would be withdrawn from consideration for this Sunday's $2.3 million Hong Kong Cup because there were trace levels of an anabolic steroid in his prerace blood test.

The difference, seriously significant, is that Conte broke the law and was duly convicted, whereas O'Neill was guilty of nothing more than the prevention of a possible international racing incident.

Hong Kong hits the American racing radar only once a year, when the magnificent Sha Tin Race Course hosts its international program of four rich turf races, filled by invitation. On Sunday (late Saturday, West Coast time), the $2.3 million, 2,000-meter Hong Kong Cup will follow runnings of the $1.8 million Hong Kong Vase at 2,400 meters, the $1.3 million Hong Kong Sprint at 1,000 meters, and the $1.8 million Hong Kong Mile, which is a much catchier name than the Hong Kong 1,600 Meters.

With Whilly staying home, American racing will be represented by the Midwestern mare Nicole's Dream in the Sprint and Vladimir Cerin stablemates Designed for Luck in the Mile and Willow O Wisp in the Cup. Internatonal stars Ouija Board, Cherry Mix, Rakti, and Alexander Goldrun lend further legitimacy to the proceedings.

Presumably, they all passed strict pre-departure testing, instituted by the Hong Kong Jockey Club to avoid the embarrassment of 1996, when the connections of two American runners were invited to run with open arms and welcomed to Hong Kong, only to be told after they arrived and underwent preliminary drug tests that they were in danger of failing the steroid ban on race day.

One of them, to the horror of the Hong Kong hosts, was Da Hoss, who had just won the Breeders' Cup Mile at Woodbine for trainer Michael Dickinson.

"He did have treatments, and it was nine weeks before the race," Dickinson said in recalling the case. "We had a split sample tested three times, and the levels each time were infinitesimal - they were looking for a submarine and found a fish. But we know and accept the Hong Kong method of zero tolerance. Those are the rules, and we love it. That's great."

The Hong Kong Jockey Club proudly wears its zero tolerance for steroids on its sleeve, while American racing has yet to get around to any form of aggressive steroid limitations.

According to O'Neill - better known these days as the trainer of likely juvenile champ Stevie Wonderboy - Whilly was given a routine dose of the anabolic steroid Winstrol a few days after his second-place finish in the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship on Oct. 2 at Santa Anita. Not long after that, O'Neill was informed that Whilly was under consideration for an invitation to Hong Kong.

"It was just bad timing," O'Neill said. "Hong Kong officials recommend no steroids be given a horse inside 60 days of their race, and we were right on the border. When they asked what drugs they should look for, we told him the only thing he'd gotten was Winstrol, and it came up with a trace, and a 50-50 chance it would still be there on race day. According to my vet, that stuff can stay in the system - horse or human - for as long as a year.

"I've found it helps horses who get muscle-sore behind," O'Neill said. "It also helps the real light, stressed-out horse who doesn't want to eat. And there also seems to be an added effect on improving decreased levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

"I realize there are people who feel that totally clean is the way to go, and more power to them," he said. "I'm not necessarily proud of using anabolic steroids on horses. But until they're illegal, and you are running five, six days a week all year long, they are a godsend to help these horses in recovering from injuries."

Dr. Rick Arthur, who is both a practicing vet and a leader in tightening California's drug rules, predicts the end is in sight for widespread steroid use.

"Horse racing has a very good story to tell on our drug testing program, in spite of what you hear from a lot of people, with the sole exception of anabolic steroids, which are permitted," Arthur said. "We should prepare ourselves, though, that anabolic steroids will likely be banned from horse racing within the next few years. And the reason for that is because the public doesn't realize that they are permitted. We're supposed to be the guardians of the horse, and in that sense we're expected to do as best as we possibly can for them."