04/29/2002 12:00AM

Tapping owners for drug research


Leaders of the national effort to reform United States medication rules are attempting to build support among owners for a $5 per-start fee to pay for a new national medication organization.

The per-start fee, collected from both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horses races and likely to be augmented by a $3 per-start fee from Standardbred races, would fund a broad-based organization to fund equine medication studies and identify areas of potential research. The national organization would also likely replace a task force set up several years ago by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to tackle medication reform.

Leaders of the reform effort plan to meet on Wednesday in Louisville to discuss the per-start fee, among other drug-related topics. Already, several prominent organizations, including the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, American Quarter Horse Association, and the NTRA task force, have endorsed the plan, which could raise as much as $5 million a year.

"It's the best way for racing to raise the kind of money for the things we need to do," said Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the NTRA task force. "And we need to have a good way of coordinating what is going on out there."

The Wednesday meeting will be the reformers' first formal follow-up to a highly publicized meeting in Tucson, Ariz., in December. According to racing officials, all the participants in the Tucson meeting, which included regulators, veterinarians, track officials, and horsemen's representatives, are expected to attend the Louisville meeting.

Supporters of the per-start fee have said that the funding would go toward developing tests to catch new drugs, paying for research into the effectiveness of certain drugs, and establishing withdrawal times of therapeutic medications. The organization would also act as a national clearinghouse to distribute the results of research and other information to the hodgepodge of organizations, laboratories, and racing commissions currently operating across the country.

Currently, every racing state uses different rules to govern drug use and testing, and most use different laboratories to identify drugs in post-race samples. Critics of the system contend that it is inefficient and confusing.

Some supporters of the national organization have said that its creation would also result in a consolidation of a number of testing laboratories. Currently, racing officials said, states employ 17 different laboratories to do racing work.

Norman Barron, a longtime Ohio racing commissioner, said recently at a regulators' conference that he believes a national organization could force laboratories to meet certain accreditations or risk losing its testing contracts. Barron said many laboratories with limited budgets do substandard work.

"Let's face it, there are laboratories, and there are laboratories," Barron said. "There has to be a way to say you meet these standards or else you get out of the business."

Many laboratories have strong local ties, however, making the prospect of closing some of them - and eliminating jobs - politically sensitive, officials said.

The per-start plan calls for the fee to be assessed on every starter at every track in the U.S., officials said, with no bias toward larger or smaller tracks. That could threaten support among owners at many tracks off the beaten path, where purses are dwarfed by the major circuits.

"The small-time owner in Idaho is going to have to support this just as much as the big-time owner in Kentucky is," said Waterman.

Participants at the May 1 meeting are also expected to discuss a skeletal national drug policy that would limit raceday medication to furosemide, the popular diuretic that is used to treat bleeding formerly known as Lasix. The policy, which is expected to be modified over the next several months before being presented to states as a model rule, was endorsed by virtually every national and state racing organization after the December meeting, with the exception of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The KHBPA has said that it will only support a national policy that mirrors that of Kentucky, where a number of anti-bleeding medications, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroids are permitted to be administered on raceday.