Saturday, May 6, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Since Thursday morning, Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies have been stationed around the clock in the stables of the 20 horses that will run in today’s 132nd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Also, a group of investigators known as the “Big Event Team” has been going through the stables, and watching over trainers and others who come into contact with these 3-year-old thoroughbreds.

Today, about an hour before post time, those investigators will take blood samples from the horses. When the race is completed, blood and urine samples will be taken. Those samples will be guarded and shipped to Iowa State University, where 80 different tests will be conducted to determine whether any banned substances were used on the horses.

These testing procedures are being done for the first time at the most prestigious horse race in America because, as Kentucky Racing Authority executive director Jim Gallagher said, “We don’t want any Barry Bonds.”

The problem, though, isn’t horses breaking speed records. The fastest Derby ever recorded remains the 1:59 2/5 that the great Secretariat ran in 1973. Of the top 10 times in Derby history, just five have come in the past 10 years.

No, these drugs have been used to compensate for a weaker thoroughbred bred, a more demanding race schedule and other factors to keep the horses healthy enough to race, with some unscrupulous owners and trainers using extreme methods to do so.

“This testing helps create a level playing field,” Gallagher said.

Only one Derby winner has been disqualified because of illegal substances, Dancer’s Image in 1968. But scandals had been brewing below the surface of the industry over their use, and that bubbled up last year, when a New York trainer at Aqueduct was charged with using a “milkshake” concoction — a masking agent for performance enhancers — in a case in which 17 people were indicted in an illegal gambling operation.

Trainer Gregory Martin pleaded guilty last month in federal court to administering the milkshake before a race at Aqueduct and passing on information that he had done so to someone connected with a gambling ring.

Kentucky will be conducting testing for such milkshakes, sending them to the Iowa State lab to be tested within 72 hours. This is a sharp turnaround from the way business was done in Kentucky earlier. But last year Gov. Ernie Fletcher disbanded the entire state racing commission and replaced it with the Kentucky Racing Authority, which then adopted the stricter testing standards, though not in time to be implemented for last year’s race.

“Kentucky had one of the most permissive racing medication rules in the country,” Gallagher said. “The state was under scrutiny, year after year. The press would pick up on Kentucky’s lax medication policies and permissive regulations [so] that it began to snowball and we nearly have an avalanche. So the horse racing authority felt it was prudent to track along a national policy and limit the number of race-day medications that could be given.”

Though each state regulates its own racing, most primary racing jurisdictions have implemented a medication policy created by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a group consisting of 30 industry groups.

“Industry wide, Kentucky took some heat because they had a very permissive rule on the books,” Gallagher said. “There was a groundswell of opinion among sportsmen and veterinarians and others that there needed to be a significant change made to race-day medications.”

Derby horses will be allowed today to use an anti-bleeding drug known as Lasix, two adjunct bleeder medications four hours before the race and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug the day before.

The new testing for stakes races has been in place at other tracks, such as Turfway Park, and Gallagher believes they have served to benefit the industry.

“Since we instituted the drug rules, there were less breakdowns,” he said. “The medication rule could be a factor in that. We have also had fuller fields, and handles have been up. Is the drug rule a factor? Yes, but it is hard right now to determine how much or what it means. But it shows that you are trying to uphold the integrity of the sport.”

So assuming everything is on the up-and-up today and everyone is clean, here is the finish for the 132nd Kentucky Derby: Sweetnorthernsaint, Barbaro and the long shot of the trifecta, Steppenwolfer.

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