Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Juiced horses: A curse or blessing for industry?

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While slots have become the chief battleground in the fight between Maryland’s racing industry and its neighbors’, a pharmaceutical front has opened.

Pennsylvania and Delaware authorities have banned steroids in thoroughbreds, while Maryland officials are deferring a decision. Bets are still off, however, on whether those states’ precedent-setting bans will give them yet another advantage over Maryland racing.

Maryland’s racing industry has been losing ground and revenues to competing tracks in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, partly because of the attraction of legalized slot machines in those states. Maryland voters in November will consider a referendum on legalizing slots at some tracks.

In the meantime, if Maryland is left as the only ‘‘steroid state” in the region, some observers fear owners and trainers won’t bring their best horses here. Yet others say the lure of being able to use steroids might attract more top horses.

The governing bodies of thoroughbred and harness racing in Maryland and Virginia and harness racing in Delaware are delaying decisions on a steroid ban until studies are completed at the University of Florida and Cornell University.

‘‘We want to make sure we do it right,” said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission. The studies should be completed in time for the 2009 season, he said.

The race to ban steroids

Maryland thoroughbred racing, at Laurel Park and Pimlico, runs from December through June. Harness racing, either at Rosecroft or Ocean Downs, runs almost year-round.

Delaware’s thoroughbred racing commission voted last week to ban steroids by the state’s opening day of racing, April 19. ‘‘Somebody has to be out front and others have to be spectators,” said commission Chairman John Wayne.

Last summer, the Pennsylvania Horse and Harness Racing Commission said its ban on steroids, with testing, would begin April 1. Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) declared that his state will be leading the charge to ban steroids in thoroughbred and harness racing.

‘‘Pennsylvania’s horse and harness racing industries are the backbone of our state’s $1.5 billion equine industry,” Rendell said. ‘‘We are the first state in the region to begin testing for anabolic steroids in racehorses, and we are setting a national standard by ensuring that our racehorses are clean of steroids and any other performance-enhancing substances.”

West Virginia is considering a ban, said Linda L. Lacy, executive secretary of the state’s racing commission, in an e-mail.

The industry’s sprint toward banning steroids was triggered, most agree, by revelations of widespread use of steroids by baseball players and subsequent congressional hearings.

Just before a congressional hearing last month on steroids in racehorses, a group of experts called the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium recommended a model rule for regulating steroids. Anabolic steroids must be withdrawn from a horse’s medication regimen well before its next race to ensure that any benefit from the drug will be gone by post time.

Veterinarians commonly use anabolic steroids therapeutically on horses. Four steroids are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for horses recovering from illness or surgery.

Abuses have flared up in recent years, said Stan Bowker, executive secretary of the Virginia Racing Commission. ‘‘If limited to therapeutic use, there would be no problem. But, now multiple steroids can be found being given to the horses two weeks out, ostensibly to win races.”

Patchwork of rules

Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said at last month’s congressional hearing that ‘‘horsemen, tracks and breeders all agree that racehorses should not compete on anabolic steroids.” Association members are from 65 racetracks and 40 national and state horsemen’s groups in 23 states, representing 90 percent of all racing in the country.

But each state must decide on its own. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association wants all states to be in compliance by Dec. 31, but it has no enforcement powers.

Maryland’s strategy is two-fold, Hopkins said: Wait for new study results, and then wait for new blood tests to be recommended. Officials in Maryland and other states initially expected a urine test would be appropriate, he said. But scientists now favor a blood test that may be more accurate and less expensive.

The model rule is being adopted in Washington, Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, California, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and Virginia, Waldrop said. Kentucky, Texas, Florida and Maryland are among the other states he expects to support the rule, too.

The patchwork of rules among states can lead to enforcement problems, some say.

‘‘If some states have steroids and others do not, the horses are going to go where the steroids are,” Bowker said. ‘‘Summer meets will have it in place in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Maryland [for thoroughbreds] does not run in the summer, but their horses have to conform if they run in our states.”

Jodie Pointer, who breeds and rehabilitates horses in Grantsville, Pa., fears the opposite. If Maryland continues to allow steroids, ‘‘no one is going to come. We can’t go there and give them drugs for one race. Maryland will become the state where all the bad horses would run.”

Hugh J. Gallagher of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, which is still studying a ban, said consistency is important.

‘‘I do think spearheading the ban without regard for all the considerations is wrong,” Gallagher said. ‘‘And nor should we encourage a haven for elements of racing that does not care about testing.”

Delaying a ban won’t hurt Maryland, Hopkins said.

‘‘I don’t buy that. Maryland has allowed steroids in the past [therapeutically]. If people really want to use steroids they can stay there, but the state is moving to ban the use of them,” he said.

Joe McLead, general manager of the 2,600-acre harness-racehorse farm Winback Farms in Chesapeake City, said scientists even need to come up with a test for steroids in feeds.

‘‘Things are very vague in drug-testing,” McLead said. ‘‘There needs to be a solid test because it is a problem anywhere in sports.”