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Horse racing takes harder line on steroid use

They had been the best 24 hours of Larry Jones' life as a trainer. The day before, Proud Spell dominated the Kentucky Oaks, and Jones' other star filly, Eight Belles, had just run second in the Kentucky Derby. Then, in less than a minute, a tornado of misery blew away Jones and his sport.

Eight Belles stumbled while galloping out after the race and fractured her front ankles. She was euthanized before Jones knew she had fallen. "It was a great morning to get up,'' he said later. "It was just a bad night to go to bed.''

For weeks it was hard for Jones to sleep. The hate mail was relentless, and animal rights groups accused him of "racing Eight Belles to the grave.'' An autopsy found no steroids or illegal drugs, no pre-existing bone abnormalities and no evidence she was hurt during the race. Jones was vindicated, but thoroughbred racing had taken a severe hit.

It was reviled as "a cruel sport," and a congressional subcommittee criticized its lax drug laws. The story wouldn't go away, and racing knew it had to act. Thirty-five of the 38 pari-mutuel racing states have passed or are trying to pass rules restricting the use of anabolic steroids, and for the first time the Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes will have the same medication policy.

All but four anabolic steroids were banned, and those still permitted for therapeutic use - stanozolol (Winstrol), boldenone (Equipoise), nandrolone (Deca-Durabolin) and testosterone - must be administered at least 30 days before a race. Only one may be present in a postrace urine sample and must be below a specific threshold level considered irrelevant for enhancing performance. For a first offense, a trainer would be fined at least $500 and suspended from 15 to 60 days. The horse would be disqualified and any purse earnings would be redistributed, but bettors would be unaffected.

Suspicion about Big Brown's Triple Crown quest arose after trainer Rick Dutrow said he gave him a steroid 2½ weeks before last year's Derby. Outside Pimlico on Preakness day, protesters' signs called Big Brown a four-legged Barry Bonds.

"A lot of people used the 'roids on the horses," said Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds, "but I don't think it was that big of a deal . And my gut tells me that the new rules are not going to have a big effect [on results].''

A shot of Winstrol didn't give Big Brown the talent to win the Derby, but perception is reality. Long Island-based IEAH Stables, which owned him, responded by deciding that as of last Oct. 1 its horses would run drug-free except for the diuretic Lasix.

Finley sees the changes as positive first steps. "In the span of one year our sport got rid of steroids,'' he said, "and I'm sure they're out to stay.''

Jones is optimistic, too. "The game is trying to make improvements because of Eight Belles," he said. "She didn't die in vain. It was a good game before, and it's going to be a better game after it happened.''

But how much better will it be? In European and Asian racing, all drugs are forbidden and penalties are severe, sometimes for a year or longer. In the United States, a six-month suspension, even for a chronic offender, is unusual. A national zero-tolerance policy would boost the image of American racing dramatically, but with different rules in each state and without a commissioner whose rule is law, it won't happen.

Last fall the Breeders' Cup got tough on steroids. For a first offense, it bars a trainer for a year; three strikes and you're out of the event for life. John Gosden shipped Raven's Pass from England to Santa Anita and won the Classic. Gosden wishes American racing were drug-free, although he's "open-minded'' about Lasix.

"I'm very opposed to steroids and always was, even when I was training in America," Gosden said. "It's an unnatural thing to be doing. But medication is a thorny subject, and the sooner we have one set of rules across the whole of the United States, the better, but maybe I'm dreaming to say it.''

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