Trainers back away from steroids

Some in Maryland say use might be in decline already on heels of new restrictions

October 03, 2008|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,bill.ordine@baltsun.com

That Big Brown became the Barry Bonds of horse racing - both have had their extraordinary athletic accomplishments associated with steroids - might be an unfortunate blemish on the winner of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

However, if the publicity surrounding Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow's admission that he occasionally used steroids on the colt hastened the end of steroid use in some racing jurisdictions, that's just fine with many in Maryland's racing community.

In September, the Maryland Racing Commission approved restrictions on a handful of anabolic steroids in an action similar to new rules approved in Kentucky in August. Nearby racing states, such as Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia, had already moved toward steroid restrictions.

And though tomorrow's 23rd Maryland Million at Laurel Park - a card of 12 races restricted to offspring of Maryland stallions - will be the last time horses can run on certain steroids in those races, some within the industry believe the shift away from steroids is already underway.

"We weren't using them very much to begin with," said Bowie-based trainer Chris Grove, who has Five Steps running in tomorrow's featured race, the Maryland Million Classic.

"It's not bothering me. We're at a 45 percent win clip at Philadelphia Park this year. We're at a 28 percent win clip at Delaware Park," Grove said, naming tracks where restrictions are already in place. "For the whole year, we're maintaining a 20 [to] 22 percent win rate. So [not using steroids] isn't bothering me."

Linda Albert, another Bowie trainer, who has Off the Glass running in the Starter Handicap tomorrow, said adverse reaction to steroid use in horse racing was in the wind.

"I quit using them a couple of years ago, because I knew this was happening," she said. "I was surprised it took this long. I suppose some of these guys are using them a lot. Like Dutrow said, they use them on a regular basis.

"It took for the Derby ... Big Brown ... for everyone to go, 'Ooh,' but all of us [in racing] were not surprised he was using them," Albert said. "But the public, particularly people not familiar with horse racing, was surprised."

The Maryland restrictions, which go into effect Jan. 1, add four anabolic steroids, including stanozolol (used on Big Brown) to the state's list of banned substances. Legislative approval is required and is expected to occur before the end of the year.

Steroids can still appear in horses below a certain level. Testing will be done on the first- and second-place finishers or on a horse with an unusual finish, such as a heavy favorite who runs poorly. Stewards will be empowered to administer penalties. Currently, stewards can impose maximum suspensions of 90 days and fines of up to $2,500.

Some in racing welcome the tougher standards: trainers because those who didn't use steroids believed they were at a disadvantage and breeders because they fear the substances interfere with a horse's reproductive health.

"I'm not using [steroids], never have used them," said Tim Keefe, a Laurel Park-based trainer who has three horses in the Maryland Million, "so it won't affect me other than the other guys won't be using them and hopefully [it] will make the playing field a little bit more level."

Some trainers have used steroids for similar reasons that human athletes do - to facilitate faster recovery from injuries and build muscle. In the case of horses, steroids can increase their appetites and energize them. But some breeders say there is a downside, including increased aggression.

"I don't want fillies all full of steroids," said Mike Pons, who has a breeding farm in Bel Air and a training facility in Baltimore County. "I can't breed them, they're the most dangerous creature alive ... and some of them are never the same after."

Some horsemen also suspect steroids might be the reason some stallions who go to stud wind up being sterile.

"It was not illegal for Dutrow to do what he was doing, and he didn't see anything wrong," said Jim Steele, a Maryland breeder and president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "In the court of [public] opinion, people frowned on that sort of thing. ... Now, Big Brown is supposedly steroid-free and he's still winning [but] not with the gusto that he did before. And I guess that will always be on people's minds. But then you go back and you say, 'Well I don't know what Secretariat ran with or without' or anybody else."

maryland million

WHAT: : 23rd Maryland Million, 12 races restricted to offspring of Maryland stallions

WHERE: : Laurel Park

WHEN: : Tomorrow, first post 12:15 p.m. (gates open 10:45 a.m.)

FEATURED RACE: : Maryland Million Classic (11th race)

ADMISSION: : $7.50 box suites, $5 clubhouse and grandstand box seats, $3, children 12-and-under

PARKING: : $10 valet, $5 preferred, free general

OTHER ENTERTAINMENT: : Country artist Andy Griggs

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