Tougher Drug Sanctions Coming in California?

Encouraged by Santa Anita's recent success uncovering excessive levels of sodium bicarbonate, the California Horse Racing Board's medication committee Wednesday tackled a wide range of other complicated issues with an eye to future technology and tougher penalities.

Meeting for the first time in more than a year, the committee grappled for three-plus hours in Arcadia, exploring such diverse topics as:
-- The illicit use of shockwave therapy and the potential of microchip implants as a better means to identify which horses are getting such treatments;
-- Increased inspections of vehicles in restricted areas on the backstretch;
-- Expanding the CHRB's retention of frozen blood or urine samples from horses for future analysis; and
-- Establishing clear guidelines for penalizing medication violations.

Perhaps most revealing, CHRB staff produced a report showing that its penalties for drug infractions in the past few years have been inconsistent and are lagging behind sanctions in other jurisdictions and the recommendations made by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

Committee member Richard Shapiro, the board's newest commissioner, charged that the report proves "the perception of an unfair playing surface."

"We must carry a stick and a significant stick," he added, to combat offenders who believe the board won't severely deal with them.

"Our penalties have gotten easier and easier, not heavier," Shapiro said, indicating he wanted quick action. "I think we have to change our philosophy by adopting very strict penalties along the lines of the ARCI guidelines, and I would hope that California would go beyond that."

John Harris, the medication committee chairman as well as CHRB commission chairman, disagreed to some extent, saying that penalties need to reflect the offenses. He noted that in 2004, all violations were for class 3 infractions that he said were relatively minor in nature and resulted in modest fines.

He said the board must maintain the discretion to recognize the difference between intentional administration of dangerous drugs "and cases of therapeutic medication that are slightly over the threshold."

Oak Tree Racing Association board member and veterinarian Dr. Rick Arthur, a member of the National Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said many highly classified drugs carry extreme therapeutic benefit. He suggested that the CHRB hold off on reclassifying its drug penalties until his group makes its national recommendations.

"Nationwide, consistent penalties are in the works and I believe they will answer your concerns," Arthur told Shapiro. "It's actually stronger policy than what you are dealing with here today. They could be adopted as early as May. It's that close to being finalized."

Roy Minami, the CHRB's assistant executive director who prepared the report on CHRB penalties, said that decisions changed to mostly fines a couple of years ago when legislation sponsored by Thoroughbred Owners of California took assessments out of the hands of stewards in most cases and put them before administrative law judges.

In the matter of testing for excess total carbon dioxide levels, or TCO2, Arthur said a third trainer, Julio Canani, will begin a 30-day stint Feb. 17 for his horses to be under 24-hour detention barn surveillance prior to starting a race. The decision came as a result of a positive blood test on his horse, Terpischore, who ran third in the first race at Santa Anita Jan. 14.

Fellow trainers Jeff Mullins and Vladimir Cerin are already serving similar restrictions due to excess TCO2 readings in "milkshake" testing during the current meeting. In all, Arthur said roughly 2,500 horses have been tested at Santa Anita with four testing at levels in excess of the 37-millimole threshold.

Arthur said the testing committee had initially decided against releasing Canani's name, but "we now agree that was a mistake.

"He assured us it was a mistake and there will be no further problems from his barn," Arthur said. "But hereafter, all names will be released regardless of circumstances."

Arthur added, "We're getting the word out. Our goal is to have no further TCO2 violations. The results show that a vast majority of horsemen are playing by the rules."