Three strikes apply to horses, as well!

May 3, 2005 7:01 AM

It was more than coincidence that two of the top executives in American sports made the same announcement last week.

The statements were significant, and the effects hopefully will be the same.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Churchill Downs CEO Tom Meeker both announced their support of new rules: three strikes and you’re out.

That’s not new in the game of baseball, but it sure is new in the game’s attitude toward steroids and other performance-enhancing substances.

It’s not new to horse racing, either, except that it vastly increases the price cheating trainers will have to pay.

Under Selig’s proposal, a first-time offender testing positive would get a 50-game suspension. But the union will probably fight it tooth and nail as it has in the past. A second offense would boost that dramatically, to a 100-game enforced vacation. And a third offense would result in banishment from major league baseball.

To appreciate the serious intent and severity of Selig’s long overdue proposal, consider that at present a first offense carries only 10 games off; a second gets the user 30 games on the ground; a third results in 60 days off; a fourth costs the user a year out of action; and a fifth is punishable at Selig’s discretion.

This is a quantum leap toward meaningful action on drug use.

The Churchill Downs’ proposal also is draconian, and clearly needed.

Each and every horse that races at Churchill at its spring meet just underway, except for those in the Kentucky Derby and its filly counterpart, the Kentucky Oaks, will have to report to a detention barn 45 minutes before it races for a pre-race blood test to be administered by a Kentucky Horse Racing Authority veterinarian. If the owner or trainer refuses to have the horse tested, the horse will be scratched from the race, and the refusal would count as a violation. The violation schedule applies to horses with high "milkshake" readings, meaning it received an infusion of alkalizing agents above accepted levels, intended to reduce lactic acid buildup and artificially enhance stamina and endurance.

The first violation calls for the horse to be subject to "earned surveillance" for the remainder of the meeting, which means that for 24 hours prior to a race the horse would be under constant surveillance, with the trainer or owner paying the cost of the extra security.

A second offense by the stable — not necessarily the same horse — earns the trainer a classification as "a persistent offender" and he or she will be barred from competition for 30 days.

A third strike and the trainer is out; out of Churchill Downs and any Churchill track in the country for a full year.

This week’s Derby and Oaks horses also will undergo pre-race blood tests, but the samples will be drawn at their own barns and not in a detention area.

That is Churchill’s new rule structure, but the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority is considering an even tougher measure that would result in life suspension for persistent violators.

While all that was going on in baseball and in Kentucky — once the bastion of permissiveness in racing and now a leader in reform — the New York Racing Association announced its own new set of rules.

Every horse in every race at Belmont Park, which opened this week, and later at Saratoga and then back at Aqueduct in late summer and fall, will have to enter a secured surveillance barn at least six hours before it races, where only the trainer and his stable employees will be allowed. The security area will be fenced, and no private veterinarians will be allowed in the area during the six-hour pre-race period. Horses that race on the anti-bleeding medication Salix will have it administered by the racing association’s own veterinarians.

NYRA’s new president and CEO, Charles E. Hayward, says he recognizes there may be short term inconvenience for trainers, but says increased credibility is essential to NYRA’s future. Trainers seem to agree, with one — David Donk — calling it "the future of racing."

The world of sports finally is abandoning denial, and facing reality. It is a giant leap forward.