02/21/2007 12:00AM

Testing whenever and wherever they choose


TUCSON, Ariz. - Horse racing's buzzwords in 2006 were "synthetic tracks."

There was a multimillion-dollar rush to build them, mandates to do so, unbridled enthusiasm that they were the answer to injuries and early retirement.

All that has been muted a bit by assorted problems. Now a new buzz sweeps the sport, and it holds huge promise.

It is out-of-competition testing.

Dr. Rick Arthur, who is turning California on its veterinary ear with long-needed reform under the powers granted him by chairman Richard Shapiro's revitalized and determined racing board, announced recently that out-of-competition testing would begin "immediately" in the Golden State.

In Delaware, wide-ranging out-of-competition measures are being introduced, with possession of drugs - not just use of them - bringing long penalties and heavy fines. Hugh Gallagher, the administrator of harness racing in Delaware, hopes to make violations so costly in Delaware that they will become intolerable, and, he said, "drive good owners away from bad trainers."

Ontario has been dropping $100,000 fines and 10-year suspensions on offenders, and last week commission executive director John Blakney, apparently infuriated by findings of 20 positives for the diuretic torsemide, issued a direct threat. The findings, Blakney said, "suggest that some individuals continue to doubt the Ontario Racing Commission's commitment to medication control," and he made it clear he will be happy to remove the doubts.

There has been talk of out-of-competition testing in Illinois, which - like all states - could use it, and in New Jersey, where a test case of state resolve on a major penalty scheduled for last week was snowed out.

What is out-of-competition testing?

It is simply the right of investigatory or rules-making or administrative bodies to order tests wherever and whenever they choose in their jurisdictions.

This is, of course, a bit like belling the cat. It is fine to talk about it, another thing to accomplish.

But in all the hubbub over the concept - and it is worthy of every bit of consideration it gets - one bold administrator did something very positive about it.

He made it mandatory.

Tom Charters is the president of the Hambletonian Society and Breeders Crown, the first a prestigious group that controls the Hambletonian - harness racing's Kentucky Derby - and a host of other major stakes. The Breeders Crown is harness racing's version of the Breeders' Cup, not really stolen from the runners because John Gaines, the founding father of the Breeders' Cup, was a harness breeder long before he began breeding Thoroughbreds, and said he got his idea from harness racing's Grand Circuit, on which he and his father won many major races.

Charters is not to the manor born. He was an Ohio kid who came to love horses and racing - easy to do in that state - and he started as a groom. He is very smart, and one of his smartest ideas was to impress the most important man in harness racing at the time, owner-breeder-trainer-driver Delvin Miller. Miller, recognizing talent, took Charters under his wing, and Charters soon became a racing secretary, here and in Macau, and now runs the Hambletonian and Breeders Crown.

He already has installed racing's most significant out-of-competition rules for this year's Crowns, and if his board grants approval when it meets with the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America next month in Florida, those rules will apply to the Hambletonian in 2009 and thereafter.

Because the Hambletonian Society is a private organization that owns or controls the races it supervises, it can write whatever rules it wishes in its conditions. Here, for openers, is what Charters, working with a very skilled New York City horse owner and attorney named Ted Gewirtz, will mandate for its biggest races:

As a condition of entry, an owner and trainer agrees to assign the absolute right to the society to conduct one or more physical examinations of the horse at any time prior to the race, regardless of where it is stabled; to draw blood and other specimens one or more times for immediate testing; and to freeze or otherwise preserve split samples for future testing at a lab of its choosing. Any evidence of blood doping agents, including but not limited to human recombinant erythropoietin, darbepoetin, Aranesp, Oxyglobin, or Hemopure, will result in scratching or disqualification of the horse and forfeiture of the starting fee.

There is much more, but that gives you the idea. Charters and the Hambletonian Society believe a horse that has been blood-doped does not belong in its races, regardless of who administered the substance.

This is action, not talk. It would be nice to see similar rules in Thoroughbred racing's major races.