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State turns to random horse test

October 31, 2006|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

As the two-inch needle is pushed into the dark bay's neck, the startled filly steps back in mild protest.

"I know, I know," veterinarian Gary Beck croons to the 2-year-old thoroughbred as he draws blood to be tested for doping. "There you go. You're OK."

Minutes earlier, the horse had finished second in that day's fourth race at Santa Anita.

The scene is played out thousands of times a year at California's 14 tracks, amid mounting suspicions of illegal drug use.

The testing, in fact, has become routine, expected.

That is changing.

In a significant shift, California has begun random testing of horses as a standard deterrent, the first state in the nation to do so. And it has a new weapon, a conclusive test for the banned human hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, a blood booster. The initial blood draws were made Oct. 19, and more were taken last week.

"We're just going to show up," said Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. "It's going to be unpredictable, and that's a real key to this. If you know I'm going to be coming around and testing on the 15th of every month, you're going to find some way to get around it."

With the Breeders' Cup only days away, the $26-billion-a-year horse racing industry finds itself increasingly stung by accusations of drugs being used to enhance horses' performances. Up to now, however, preset tests immediately before and after races haven't turned up big numbers.

In California, many of the violations have involved illegal levels of therapeutic medications, often considered accidental. Since Jan. 1, 2003, there have been 93 serious violations out of nearly 100,000 tests. Twenty-three led to trainer suspensions ranging from seven days to a year, although penalties can be stiffer, depending on circumstances.

Clenbuterol, a stimulant used to treat respiratory ailments, was the most commonly abused drug -- 28 violations.

Officials also argue that, as in other pro sports, catching cheaters is tough without random, or out-of-competition, testing. Some drugs can be administered on race day but don't show up immediately or, as in the case of EPO, the drug leaves the body quickly, yet its effects can last for more than two weeks

"It's incumbent on us to make sure we're using a level playing field," said Richard B. Shapiro, CHRB chairman. "If somebody's going to try something on the human athlete, those same types of people might say, 'Maybe it'll work on a horse.' "

Indeed, it is EPO and darbepoetin, or D-EPO, that are specifically targeted by the random testing. Perhaps most closely associated with the Tour de France's drug woes, EPO increases an athlete's endurance.

"I don't think the problem is rampant," Shapiro said of EPO. "I think there's those few who may look for an edge. It's a very few, but a very few is too many."

Accelerating California's move was the recent development at the University of Pennsylvania's Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory of an EPO "fingerprint" test, providing what researchers say is absolute confirmation of the hormone's presence. Before this, about a dozen states -- though not California -- would screen blood for antibodies that point to EPO. But it wasn't foolproof.

Although one of the biggest drug problems involves "milkshakes" -- track slang for the illegal concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes that can make a champion out of a loser. The CHRB said prerace testing specifically targets this. A blood screening can detect high levels of total carbon dioxide, or TCO2, which is believed to increase a horse's stamina.

Even so, about 800 other substances, including medicines that can jeopardize a horse's health if abused, are put through the screening process.

Still, Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Assn., urges caution on out-of-competition testing, since it will also turn up violations involving therapeutic medications that often are unintentional and can be inconsequential if the horse isn't racing any time soon.

"It's a very tricky area. If a horse is just walking around the grounds with a drug in its system, what difference does it make?" he said. "The purpose of this testing is not to have the racing police sticking horses at all hours of the day."

Arthur sees out-of-competition testing simply as rooting out cheaters who want to finish in the money.

"It lets people know it's a new era, and that we're going to be paying attention to this," he said. "If we never have a positive, I would be happy. But we want people to know that what they see in the Racing Form is what they're going to get."

To be sure, drugs are an issue for all 38 states that sanction horse racing. However, statistics are scattered, making it hard to gauge the scope of the problem.

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