LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Four-legged athletes are joining their two-legged counterparts as part of a congressional probe into steroids in sports.
The president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has agreed to testify in front of a House panel investigating the effects of performance-enhancing drugs.
Although most of the focus to date has been on baseball and other team sports, thoroughbred racing also is trying to enact a national ban on steroids, at least for the days leading up to races.
"I think the perception is drug use in racing is worse now than maybe it's ever been," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. "There have been many individual veterinarians, prominent breeders and owners who are quite frustrated."
NTRA president Alexander Waldrop will join representatives from Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL, as well as officials with college and high school sports, at the Feb. 27 hearing in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's panel on commerce, trade and consumer protection.
Whitfield is the top Republican on the subcommittee.
"We have tested for performance-enhancing drugs in horses for more than 60 years, spent more than $30 million in testing alone," Waldrop said. "It's not surprising Congress would look at horse racing. I don't know that they're necessarily taking a dim view. We have a mature testing program in place, and they may want to learn something from it."
While Waldrop and other racing officials have spoken with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the hearing will provide a more public approach to addressing the issue. Waldrop said it is the first time an NTRA official has testified before Congress on the issue.
Last year, a trade association that represents state horse racing commissions agreed to a model rule that calls for steroid testing to be adopted nationwide no later than December 2008. While the stipulation likely won't immediately provide a blanket ban on steroids, the tests will be designed to make sure horses didn't receive injections within at least a month before a race.
Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said steroid shots once were relatively common and somewhat benign, providing a one-time jolt to horses that weren't responding well to training. Now, some trainers are trying to put the animals through steroid regimens that could affect competition and ultimately harm the animals, Waterman said.
"Given what is happening in other major league sports, we didn't feel like we could bury our head in the sand on this," Waterman said.
Some states have already implemented steroid testing, but Kentucky is among those still researching options. Lisa Underwood, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, said it's unlikely the rules will be in place in time for this year's Kentucky Derby.
"We do agree with the premise that anabolic steroids do need to be regulated, but we want to make sure it's done correctly," Underwood said.
Horse racing officials point out that their athletes for years have been subjected to far more drug testing than those in any other major sport. Typically, the winner and a random selection of other competitors goes to the testing barn after a race.
But the focus was usually on other performance-enhancers rather than anabolic steroids, which were perceived to have only a minor affect improving racing ability.
"Horses basically are middle-distance athletes," said Larry Bramlage, a veterinarian with Rood and Riddle hospital in Lexington. "They're not sprinters or weight lifters or power athletes. It does make them stronger, but it's nowhere near the affect you have with the power events like how far you can throw or hit a ball."
Bramlage says he supports a ban to bring racing into line with other sports, but he predicts there will be some fallout. For example, geldings often are given steroids to make up for lost testosterone, Bramlage says, and a steroid ban could effectively push them out of the racing picture.