05/16/2005 12:00AM

Vote on new drug penalties delayed


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority on Monday postponed a vote on whether to approve new penalties for trainers whose horses test positive for performance-enhancing medications. The postponement was made in order to allow minor revisions to the policy and allow authority members more time to think about the proposal.

The authority will likely vote on the recommendations at the panel's next meeting in June, according to the authority's chairman, Bill Street.

The delay is a minor setback to supporters of the new policy, which was developed by the Kentucky Equine Drug Council over the past several months and includes much stricter penalties than currently in place in Kentucky. The council, which by law makes recommendations to the authority on medication and testing policies, had unanimously approved the recommendations on Thursday and had hoped to get approval from the authority at the Monday meeting.

The recommended penalties would sharply increase suspensions and fines for trainers whose horse test positive for prohibited medications. The penalties also include provisions to suspend horses and to prohibit trainers from transferring their horses to assistants or family members while under suspension.

Connie Whitfield, the chairwoman of the council and the vice-chair of the authority, told authority members at the meeting that she would not be comfortable asking for the authority's approval until the revisions were made and after additional documents could be forwarded to authority members. She said that the revisions were suggested by authority members just before the Monday meeting.

The move was welcomed by some authority members, who said that they did not receive the recommendations until late last week, after the approval by the council.

Dell Hancock, an authority member whose family owns Claiborne Farm, said in an interview after the meeting that she did not disagree with any of the major provisions in the policy, but also said that authority members needed more time to review the details of the recommendations "to make sure we get this right."

"I wasn't totally comfortable with it," Hancock said. "I want to make sure we get the punishments right, and I don't want to punish someone who is innocent. It's a lot harder to change a regulation after it's made than to get it right the first time."

After the meeting, Whitfield outlined the revisions that were suggested and said that none would alter the council's intent to deal with cheating harshly. In one instance, however, the penalty for a positive for so-called Class A drugs - medications that have no therapeutic benefit in a horse and have potential performance-enhancing attributes, such as opiates - would be made more lenient, allowing stewards the choice of not suspending the trainer. The policy approved on Thursday would have mandated a minimum one-year suspension for any trainer whose horse tested positive for a Class A drug.

The revisions appeared to suggest that regulators want stewards to have more leeway in deciding penalties in drug cases in the event of mitigating circumstances. Hancock cited a rash of positives in 1994 in California for scopolamine, a central nervous system depressant, that was ultimately traced to a shipment of hay that contained jimsonweed. Scopolamine, which would qualify as a Class A drug under the new rules, sometimes appears naturally in jimsonweed.

"I shouldn't use the word wiggle room, but if someone with a positive is innocent, we don't want to put them out of business," Hancock said. "And if someone is guilty, I want to see them strung up by the thumbnails. We need balance so that we have flexibility and have penalties that are right and just."