LEXINGTON, Ky. - Members of a Kentucky panel that oversees drug rules for horse racing got into a lively discussion Tuesday about whether the timing is right to tighten the reins on steroid use among four-legged athletes.
With steroids getting increased national attention, particularly for team sports such as baseball and football, the host state for the Kentucky Derby is a high-profile holdout from a proposal to ban or significantly limit the use of certain anabolic steroids in racehorses.
Connie Whitfield, chairwoman of the state's Equine Drug Research Council, said in the next three days she will organize a group of leaders in the horse industry to distinguish fact from fiction in the heated debate over steroid regulation.
"We need to get it right," Whitfield said. "We don't want to be rushed to judgment and make a decision we'll regret later."
Numerous horse safety issues have come to the forefront in the wake of the death of the filly Eight Belles, who broke down and had to be euthanized following her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. A steroid test on Eight Belles came back negative, but drug testing rules have been among those scrutinized by critics of the horse racing industry.
While racetracks test for numerous performance-enhancing drugs, steroids have not been a focus until recently.
"I don't think the public is going to be very patient with us on this," said Kentucky state Sen. Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican who sits on the drug panel. "We can't committee this to death. We can't symposium it to death. We can't talk it to death. We've got to do something."
John Ward, a member of the equine drug council, expressed concern that urine testing in its current state wouldn't be able to stand up in court. A plasma test also is being developed, which some researchers say should produce more conclusive results.
"I think the science is fast-moving on this," Ward said. "That's why we're in a little bottleneck right now. There will be change in the state of Kentucky, but the state wants to change effectively using the best procedures we can. The science is kind of gray."
Dan Fick, chairman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said 10 states are testing under a proposed national model rule on steroids. Others have approved the rule in concept, and there is growing pressure on Kentucky and other states to pass the rule by the beginning of next year.
If that doesn't happen, some horse leaders in Kentucky fear the federal government might step in.
"If we can't get it right at the state level, the federal government can and will usurp the rights of the state and regulate horse racing," committee member Rick Hiles said. "It's going to happen and sooner rather than later if we're not careful."