No rein on steroids

Drug debate raging in sport that lacks uniform testing policy

Preakness

May 16, 2008|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

Three days after the Kentucky Derby, Eight Belles' trainer angrily denied that steroids contributed to her gut-wrenching breakdown on the Churchill Downs track.

To prove his claim, Larry Jones said he was voluntarily doing something that officials inside and outside horse racing say should have been made mandatory years ago - testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

Horse racing, unlike major league baseball, basketball and football, doesn't ban steroids. Horsemen such as Rick Dutrow, who trains Preakness favorite Big Brown and other horses, say they legally administer Winstrol - the steroid that former Orioles star Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for - as part of the animals' regimen.

Veterinarians say steroids have therapeutic purposes, such as helping horses recover from injury. But critics say the drugs are used by many to make horses stronger and faster, sometimes at the horses' peril.

"These steroids are an artificial advantage used to bulk up horses," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who says the drugs contribute to clotting disorders, liver damage and heart attacks and can help build muscles that the animals' legs can't support, leading to breakdowns.

Twenty-seven years after Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias of Maryland urged a national prohibition on drugs in horse racing, Whitfield and others are wondering why Maryland, which hosts the Preakness tomorrow, and other leading racing states have lagged in banning steroids.

"I remember Sen. Mathias talking to the Jockey Club [in 1981]," Whitfield said. "He said [to states] that either you take action or we'll send the federal cavalry into your barns. But things have not changed that much since then."

The state won't screen for steroids at the Preakness because Maryland doesn't yet have testing procedures in place. Maryland will test for many other drugs, including stimulants and overuse of phenylbutazone, or bute, an anti-inflammatory.

Bute is the most commonly abused drug at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, according to Maryland Racing Commission records. Overusing the drug can fetch fines ranging from $500 to $1,500 and lead to suspension or disqualification.

Though there is no evidence Eight Belles was on steroids, Whitfield said the horse's death "has re-ignited the debate over the horse racing industry in general and steroids in particular." Test results on Eight Belles are pending.

The industry, concerned about its image, has been trying to assure fans racing is safe. Maryland and other states say they are committed to approving steroid regulations as some states have done. Still, Whitfield says legislation might be needed. "The general thought is that drug use in horse racing is perhaps the worst it has ever been," he said at a hearing earlier this year.

Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says horses are run too young and injected with unhealthy quantities of drugs, are planning protests at the Preakness. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has also expressed concerns. "Anabolic steroids are for debilitated horses, but it's rare that it's used for that purpose," said Bob Baker, an ASPCA investigator who used to own racehorses.

Dutrow said in interviews this week that he's among those who uses stanozolol, whose trade name is Winstrol, on his horses. "I usually give it to them once a month," Dutrow said.

Asked the purpose of the drug, Dutrow replied, "The vets would know that better than me." He said it would be less complicated for horsemen if there were a uniform steroids rule.

"I wish they would have the same thing in each and every state. But they don't," he said. "Every state is different. ... And it gets very confusing with horsemen. I wish they'd have the same guidelines just like they have in baseball, football and basketball."

The state racing commission says it is particularly eager to halt a practice known as "steroid stacking," in which horses are placed on a number of steroids simultaneously to try to boost their performances.

Whitfield and others say it's hard to know how widespread this practice is. Dr. Rick Arthur, California's equine medical director, told The Sacramento Bee in December that about 60 percent of California racehorses in training have been treated with anabolic steroids.

The topic is generating high emotions in the industry. "The powers that be are the proverbial ostrich with their heads in the sand if they think the lid on this one is going to be kept shut forever," said a recent post on the Web site of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a trade group. "Get zero tolerance universally at all U.S. racetracks for anabolic steroids and do it now," said the post, whose author identified himself as a horse owner.

Maryland's racing commission says its delay - neighboring Pennsylvania and Delaware have banned steroids - is because the state wants to determine how best to conduct the tests, structure the rules and what sorts of penalties to adopt.

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