08/24/2006 11:00PM

Test them first, then let them race

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The revelation earlier this week by California Horse Racing Board chairman Richard Shapiro that neither Pacific Classic winner Lava Man nor any of his seven beaten opponents last Sunday registered illegally high blood bicarbonate levels could be viewed as one of those "so what" stories that deserves little more than a nod in passing.

Hopefully, none of the other 202 Thoroughbreds, 60 Quarter Horses, 28 Arabians, and six honest, hard-working mules who competed in California on the same day tested high for TCO2 either, but those results have not been forthcoming, and positives always take more time to confirm.

Such is the world racing finds itself in these days, when assurances of innocence are valued as highly as proven guilt. Shapiro was responding to post-Classic comments made by trainer Murray Johnson (since retracted) that alluded to possibly high TCO2 levels in Lava Man, trained by Doug O'Neill.

"I read with regret the comments in the San Diego Union and elsewhere," Shapiro said, "and I know there has been a lot of rumblings as to TCO2 levels, and particularly with Doug O'Neill, because he did have a positive [earlier this year]. I felt that in light of all that, the public deserved to know the truth. There were no enhancements. And frankly I was kind of getting a little tired of California being blamed for not watching medication the way we should.

"So I felt there was good reason to set the record straight," Shapiro added. "I wasn't thinking of precedent, and I wasn't thinking of political correctness. I just said, wait a minute - this horse is just so damn good, he deserves all the credit due a horse who has accomplished such great things."

Much of the mystery and confusion surrounding TCO2 levels would be rendered moot were California to approve prerace readings of bicarbonate levels, as other jurisdictions have done. Just this week, the procedure was adopted by the Ohio Racing Commission, under the direction of commission chairman Norm Barron.

According to executive director Sam Zonak, the ORC will be investing in seven blood gas testing radiometers, manufactured by a Danish company, and adding technical staff to draw blood from every horse in every race.

"You draw the blood, you shoot it in the machine, and two minutes later you've got a result," Zonak said. "If it's clearly a high level, your horse is scratched and you're looking at penalties. This way, the betting public also gets a fair shake. They don't get taken out of the loop."

Ohio officials have been spot-checking two races on each program for blood bicarbonate levels, Zonak noted, and there have been a number of excessive levels called.

"Maybe by doing every horse in every race they won't be as tempted to take a chance," Zonak said.

Zonak and his staff will be meeting with Ohio's horsemen to fine-tune the prerace testing procedures before the blood gas screening goes into effect. He estimated that horses would need to head for the paddock only about a half-hour earlier than the traditional report times.

Zonak also conceded that the screening provided relatively raw data compared with postrace laboratory confirmations, but that there would be an option in place for those horses who fell into a "gray area" of TCO2 levels on the radiometer readings. The Ohio limit is the same as California's - 37 millimoles of TCO2 per liter of blood serum.

"If it reads, say, 37.1, then those individuals will be given the opportunity to go ahead and race," Zonak said. "If the confirmed test was not in excess of the limit, then there would be no penalty. But if the test comes back from the lab confirmed as a positive, the penalty will be very, very severe. So our recommendation will be to scratch, then wait for the lab report, because if it is confirmed as over the limit, the penalty would not be as severe as if you did race."

At this point, California officials are not yet willing to go with such a system.

"You're going on the blind faith that the screening result was fine, and you don't need anything else," said Scott Stanley, director of California's official testing facility at UC-Davis. "That's a big difference.

"If we had a two-hour window during which the horses were detained, we could probably do both screening and a confirmation," Stanley added. "Unfort-

unately, they're only coming up 30 to 40 minutes before they race."

Which seems to put the ball back into the CHRB's court, if it is only a matter of detention time. Chairman Shapiro plans to pursue the idea of prerace TCO2 testing.

"If there was a way to do it right, I'm very interested," Shapiro said. "Then we would never get into the position of having horses that race where there could be a positive. If it means horses would need to be in a receiving barn earlier, we might have to take a look at that. In the end, I think it would make things better for both the public and the horsemen."