07/30/2008 12:00AM

Trainers cautious as steroid deadline nears


DEL MAR, Calif. - Jeff Mullins reached into a small refrigerator in his stable office at Del Mar on Wednesday and pulled out a small sealed container full of fluid. The contents, a urine sample, were bound for the state's equine drug testing laboratory at the University of California-Davis later this week to be screened for anabolic steroids.

"There's three more just like that," he said.

Mullins, like several other trainers, has been testing his horses for steroids before they race in anticipation of the California Horse Racing Board enacting tougher penalties for steroid use.

Beginning Friday, trainers who have horses who test positive for excessive levels of the four steroids allowed to appear in postrace tests - boldenone, nandrolone, stanozolol, and testosterone - will receive "warnings," which do not result in any penalty but become part of a trainer's record and will be taken into consideration for any future violations. From July 1 to Friday, the racing board issued "notices" to trainers informing them of steroid overages. The notices did not result in any penalty and are not part of a trainer's record.

In September, after recently approved rule amendments are reviewed by the California secretary of state's office, more stringent penalties will take effect, resulting in purse redistributions and possible fines and/or suspensions against trainers whose horses test in excess of the permitted levels. The date when those rules will go into effect is not known.

The idea behind gradually phasing in penalties was to prompt trainers to stop giving their horses anabolic steroids by July 1, allowing for a 30-day withdrawal period before the warnings were given.

Mullins said his horses have not been administered steroids for 45 days.

"When we entered for July 1, I had some that were questionable," he said. "I pulled out the entries."

Three other leading trainers in Southern California - Mike Mitchell, Doug O'Neill, and John Sadler - said their horses were taken off steroids in June and early July. Mitchell, who won the training title at Santa Anita earlier this year, said he took his horses off steroids by early July and expects them to be free of steroids by Aug. 10.

Mitchell acknowledged that he was slow to take some runners off stanozolol - the most commonly used steroid - in July. He was given a notice for overages at Hollywood Park in July, he said. He described his decision not to take horses off steroids earlier as "my stupidity."

"It's something I didn't want to do cold turkey with them," he said.

"A lot of us know that if it's on the record it's serious," Mitchell said. "In September, they're going to hang us. None of us need the suspension, getting the purse taken away, or all the publicity."

Racing officials said trainers were informed in May of the need to stop giving horses steroids, which help build muscle mass and increase appetite in horses.

"I can't feel real sorry for them," said Rick Arthur, the racing board's equine medical director. "They had plenty of warning."

Sadler, who won the training title at Hollywood Park earlier this summer, said he will submit some horses for prerace testing "to make sure we're good."

The prerace testing is being financed by the racing board, and informs trainers whether steroids were detected and whether the level is above or below the threshhold for a positive.

Echoing the thoughts of other trainers, Sadler said the lack of steroids could lead some horses to need more time to recover from races.

"It's good for the horse, but it won't make the racing secretaries happy," he said.

Del Mar director of racing Tom Robbins expects entries in the next month "to be a struggle."

"A slowdown is a concern," he said.

The permitted levels of the four medications vary, according to the racing's board new rules. Stanozolol will be allowed in levels up to one nanogram per millilter of urine. Nandrolone will be allowed up to one nanogram for geldings and for fillies and mares, and 45 nanograms for entire males. Boldenone will be permitted up to 15 nanograms in males other than geldings.

The rules for testosterone are more complex - 20 nanograms in geldings, and 55 nanograms for fillies and mares. Testosterone is allowed at any level in entire males.