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Under the microscope
To the casual observer, this year's Kentucky Derby will look like any other Kentucky Derby. A full field of 3-year-olds will fill the gates in front of the largest racing crowd of the year, and the winner will be lauded as the best of his generation.
Behind the scenes, however, this year's Derby will be much different.
Following the lead of racetracks around the country, Churchill Downs is using a house rule to require a pre-race blood sample from every horse to test for illegal alkalizing agents, which are thought to stave off fatigue. A special team of investigators, put in place by the revamped Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, will be patrolling Churchill's backstretch to supplement the track's own security team. After the race, blood and urine samples from the horses will be subjected to a litany of tests designed to detect more than 90 different drugs - up from 30 last year - that could impact a horse's performance.
This year's Derby will also be notable as the last one to be run under Kentucky's liberal medication policy, which allows unregulated amounts of the diuretic Lasix and several different types of painkillers to be administered to a horse up to four hours before a race. The racing authority struck down that policy earlier this year, when it approved rules that will allow only anti-bleeding medications to be administered on race day. The new rules will not be completed in time for this year's Derby, Kentucky regulators said last week, despite the desire by some authority members to run the Derby under more strict standards.
The changes in the Derby are the result of a nationwide movement to crack down on drug abuse in Thoroughbred racing and restore the confidence of bettors whose faith in the game has been shaken by a series of drug scandals and persistent, sometimes incomprehensible, form reversals by horses.
The effort, which has proceeded in fits and starts for several years, gained enormous traction in the past six months after a spate of positive test results for alkalizing agents in California and the indictment earlier this year of a trainer in New York for not only giving a horse a banned medication, but also for informing a group of gamblers about the doping. In addition, the gamblers were indicted for running an illegal betting ring through offshore rebate shops.
Kentucky has long been a battleground for its liberal medication rules, and the state's new racing leadership has emboldened supporters of reform while alienating some of the everyday horsemen who race at Kentucky's tracks.
"Kentucky is in a pretty high gear right now, and it's maybe going to provide leadership rather than following or doing nothing," said Ned Bonnie, a Louisville lawyer who has long been a supporter of drug reform in Kentucky. "When you're out in front, you can run the risk of getting too far out in front, or having people say that's the wrong way to go. But leaders always run a risk."
To be certain, the Derby has always been more scrutinized than any other race in Kentucky, with the exception perhaps of a Breeders' Cup event. Churchill officials have traditionally assigned a security guard to each horse entered in the race, sometimes as early as two weeks before Derby day. But the new procedures are clearly designed to plug security gaps.
Most of the changes are attributable to Kentucky's new racing regulators, who have responded to an industry movement to standardize medication rules. The regulators are part of a slate of racing commissioners appointed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican who is a medical doctor and an opponent of the liberal drug policy. They pushed through the new rules this year over the strong objections of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents most of the state's rank-and-file horsemen. Members of the horsemen's group contend that the liberal policy allows trainers to humanely treat their horses for minor aches and pains.
The reform effort gained strength last year when Connie Whitfield, the wife of U.S. congressman Ed Whitfield, a Republican trial lawyer, was appointed chairwoman of the Kentucky Equine Drug Council, which recommends drug policy to the authority. Fletcher reconstituted the council shortly after he took office in early 2004 and gave the council the mandate to bring Kentucky's rules more in line with a stricter medication policy that has already been adopted in 13 states and is in the process of being adopted in a dozen more.
"During the campaign, Fletcher kept talking about how important racing is to the state, and how the most important aspect of racing is its integrity," said David Switzer, the president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, which opposed the liberal rules. "The rules were a threat to that. You have to remember, Fletcher is a physician, and he knows what drugs are. He knows that therapeutic drugs are often drugs of abuse."
The post-race test for Derby horses, which will look for roughly three times as many banned drugs than last year, was pressed by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, a national group that establishes grades for the country's most important races. The group approved a plan in 2003 that would strip a race of its graded status if the host track did not pay to have the top finishers take a supertest, a sophisticated drug test that subjects a post-race urine sample to every available drug-screening method. The plan did not go into effect for many races until this year. As a result, all three Triple Crown races - the Derby, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes in New York - will use the supertest.
It is unclear how Kentucky's liberal rules may have affected past Derby performances. In the last five runnings of the Derby, every horse but one - Lion Heart, who finished second last year - was administered Lasix. Some horses may have also been administered combinations of painkillers, such as phenylbutazone and flunixin, and some may have been given injections of corticosteroids to ease pain in leg joints. Still others may have been given one or more of the so-called adjunct bleeder medications, including blood-clotting agents and blood thinners. All are legal under Kentucky's liberal rules, and none of the administrations, with the exception of Lasix, had to be disclosed to bettors or regulators.
The new rules, part of a uniform medication policy recommended by a national reform group called the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, will limit race-day drugs to Lasix and, for the time being, the adjunct bleeder medications. Of three trainers who have won the Derby in the past 11 years - John Ward, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito - none said that they had given their horses anything other than Lasix to race with on Derby day.
"People don't understand, if you give too much medication, you're going to dull your horse," Baffert said. "Your horse isn't going to run. If you take too much of anything, it's going to make your stomach upset. You're not going to feel good. It's like anything - too much of one thing hurts you."
Biancone, who trained Lion Heart, the only horse not to receive Lasix in the Derby the past five years, said, "My horse didn't need it, and anything my horse doesn't need, he doesn't get. If you don't have a headache, do you take aspirin?"
Although Kentucky's new rules will not be in effect for this year's Derby, security will have a greater presence on the backstretch. At most racetracks, backstretch security is performed by a combination of personnel from the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau, the state racing commission, and security guards hired by the tracks. Most tracks have a contract for an agent to be provided by the TRPB, a national investigative agency operated by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group. The agent's salary is paid by the track.
Churchill has declined to use agents from the TRPB for all seven Churchill racetracks. TRPB officials declined to comment on Churchill's decision except to say that they believed it was based on the expense. According to one TRPB official, agents' salaries are usually in the range of $50,000 to $90,000 a year.
Instead, Churchill Downs has hired its own investigative agents, according to Steve Sexton, the president of the company's
flagship track in Louisville. As a member of the TRA, Churchill still receives national reports from the TRPB and has access to the bureau's database, which contains thousands of security files.
"We felt we had the tools already with our relationship with the TRPB, and that we could hire our own employees just as we would utilize the TRPB agent," Sexton said. "We still have involvement with the TRPB, access to the database, etc. We've just chosen to hire our own."
Sexton said that Churchill made the decision this year to increase its security personnel during Derby week, including the addition of plain-clothes detectives to patrol the backstretch.
"We've tended to take a closer look every year at our procedures in general," Sexton said. "We just feel that this year, with all that's going on, we needed to escalate the presence of particular security personnel."
Some trainers have been critical of security personnel other than the agents employed by the TRPB or state racing commissions. John Ward, the Kentucky trainer who won the Derby in 2001 with Monarchos and who has become an outspoken proponent of medication and security reform, compared the guards assigned for special race days to ushers.
"I think our backstretch security is totally inadequate as far as quality personnel who know what they are looking for," Ward said. "We've got a lot of security guards, but they're there to organize the human element, as far as who is allowed on and off the racetrack. Do we have people who have the talent and training to recognize whether horses are being treated within the parameters of the rules? We have very few of those."
Ward's concerns are not shared by all trainers. Biancone, Baffert, and Zito all said they believed Churchill's security was adequate for the Derby, although all three said the guards function mostly to restrict access to horses from outside visitors.
But what about protecting horses from insiders? Some racing officials and horsemen suggest that the problem of protecting the public from cheating is not solved by the typical kind of security employed by Churchill, because guards at barns are usually on a familiar basis with the trainers whose horses they are hired to protect.
Sexton said the guards hired by Churchill receive training courses at the track. "Our security personnel come in and show them the do's and don'ts, in terms of noise and how to behave around the horses," Sexton said. "We make sure that they are well prepared and well equipped, that they can perform the functions that we need them to for that time period."
This year, for the first time, an independent team of investigators will be based at Churchill during Derby week to enforce Kentucky's racing rules, according to Jim Gallagher, the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. The authority investigators may accompany veterinarians as they treat Derby horses, Gallagher said.
"I don't mean this in any Big Brother way," Gallagher said. "But I think it's important for us to be able to communicate to the people there that we are meant to regulate and have them know that we are doing everything we can to protect the integrity of the game."
Churchill's testing program for banned alkalizing agents, which had not been finalized as of Friday, will be based on programs at other tracks, according to Churchill officials. One of those programs is in operation in Lexington, Ky., at Keeneland, which began pre-race testing for alkalizing agents at its spring meet. The test can detect excessive levels of total carbon dioxide, a telltale sign of alkalizing agents. The maximum benefits of alkalizing agents are believed to come from an administration four to six hours before a race.
Since the program will be conducted through an agreement between the track and the horsemen, Churchill will not have the authority to disqualify a horse who tests positive. That authority is reserved for a state's racing commission, which in Kentucky has not formally adopted testing procedures or penalties for alkalizing agents, although a rule is in the works.
Only a handful of states have formally enacted penalties for the use of alkalizing agents, but racetracks in California, Florida, and New York have all adopted similar house rules while their racing commissions formalize the regulations.
California's program has been the only one so far to call any positives for excessive levels of total carbon dioxide. Earlier this year, four trainers - Julio Canani, Vladimir Cerin, Adam Kitchingman, and Jeff Mullins - had horses test positive at Santa Anita despite widespread publicity about the new testing program.
The trainers were neither suspended nor fined, nor were the horses disqualified. But for a period of 30 days, the four trainers were required to send their horses to be isolated in a detention barn 24 hours before a race, a penalty that some horseplayers have criticized as being inadequate.
"What's the point of this one-month detention barn?" said Len Freidman, who produces handicapping tools for Ragozin Sheets. "They are still all training, they didn't lose any horses, they didn't lose any purses, and they are still going about their business as usual."
Dr. Rick Arthur, the California veterinarian who helped design the testing program, countered that, the program has been "amazingly effective," saying that no positives for alkalizing agents have been detected in the seven weeks since the last trainer, Kitchingman, had a horse test over the limit.
"Our original goal was always to stop the problem, not punish people," Arthur said. "We're doing all that we can do, and this was all that people were willing to agree to while California drafts the official rules." Under that draft rule, trainers with positives for alkalizing agents will be fined and suspended, and horses will be disqualified.
In Kentucky, as in other states that have adopted house rules, test results for alkalizing agents are the property of the host track, but racing regulators are likely to have the right to review the results, Gallagher said. In the host states for the final two races in the Triple Crown - the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes - the Maryland Racing Commission has been testing for alkalizing agents for several years, and Belmont Park has approved a house rule for such testing.
Belmont Park, which opens its 100th season on May 4, will be the site for an experiment that does not have a precedent in Thoroughbred racing: the meet-long use of a detention barn to isolate horses before every race. Although details are still being finalized, NYRA officials expect to require all horses be sent to a detention barn six hours before they race. The only person who will be allowed access to the horse in the detention barn will be the state veterinarian, who can administer injections of Lasix.
The detention barn will be used for horses entered in the Belmont Stakes, according to Charles Hayward, the president of the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont. Churchill officials have said that they will monitor Belmont's experiment with a detention barn. But it is doubtful Churchill would adopt the practice, Sexton said, because trainers have expressed an interest in having their horses in familiar surroundings before they race.
Since detention barns are normally a short distance from the paddock to minimize the opportunity for mischief between the time a horse leaves the barn and enters the saddling area, the use of a detention barn at Churchill presumably would disrupt one of the Derby's treasured traditions.
That would be the walk-over, when the horses, trainers, and handlers slowly make their way from the barn area on the backside to the paddock, walking the wrong way around the track along the outer rail. That's when the crowd gets its first look at the horses, swelling with noise and anticipation.
At that point, it's difficult to think anything could happen to compromise the security of the horses. So many eyes will already be in place to watch them.