Screening horses for ailments, doping ahead of Preakness a 'sophisticated' task

In a pair of low-slung green stables manned by security guards and watched by 24-hour surveillance cameras, a pack of brawny young horses will be monitored, poked and assessed down to the blood in their veins.

The horses set to race in the 138th Preakness are to be kept under a microscope from their arrival at Pimlico Race Course until they burst from their starting gates Saturday — not only to avoid injury but also scandal.

"It's become more sophisticated," said David Zipf, 72, the Maryland Racing Commission's longtime chief veterinarian for thoroughbred racing. "It's not hay, oats and water anymore."

This year's Triple Crown comes at a time of heavy scrutiny for the racing industry, with renewed concerns about doping and horse safety forcing officials and insiders to take a new look at security measures.

Racing officials have been developing reforms for years. Some are being introduced for 2013; others are still being considered.

Days after winning the 2012 Preakness, I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill was given a 45-day suspension by California racing officials for running a horse with a high total carbon dioxide level in 2010. He had been fined three previous times for the same thing. He dropped his appeal of the suspension over the summer and served it beginning in August 2012.

O'Neill vigorously defended his record at the time, swearing that he never did "milkshake" (administer sodium bicarbonate to) a horse.

A tendon injury in I'll Have Another was discovered by O'Neill on the morning before the Belmont Stakes, and the horse was withdrawn from the race and retired.

With casino revenues swelling the daily purses at Maryland's tracks, from an average of about $160,000 when the first casino opened in 2010 to nearly $250,000 now, officials say the pressure for horses to perform — and for trainers to push them ever harder — is edging up.

"The horses have become an investment, an implement to make money," said Zipf, who has screened Preakness horses for ailments and injuries since 1965. "And sometimes with the economy, they have to grind on them to pay their way."

More catastrophic injuries to horses have also been documented in Maryland, New York and other states.

Twenty-one horses were euthanized last year at Pimlico and Laurel Park, Maryland's other thoroughbred racetrack, up from 10 in 2011. About 15 have been euthanized so far this year, according to Mike Hopkins, the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.

Hopkins said the problems are being taken seriously by the industry.

"The last thing the racing industry wants is to have a black cloud shadowing over it," he said. "Public perception is very important."

Rules for low-stakes claims races have been changed to limit how often the horses may run, and at what price, and officials are reviewing purse amounts to determine whether they have risen to levels that promote too much risk-taking, Hopkins said.

At the Preakness stables, barn entrances have been cut from six to four — one at each corner. Fewer people will be allowed to enter, and those who are must sign in and out. Six digital cameras monitor the stables 24 hours a day. And Hopkins said horses are tested randomly for performance-enhancing drugs in the days before the race.

Officials are also considering requiring an earlier check-in for next year's Preakness to ensure a longer period for monitoring. Horses now may be brought to Pimlico as late as the day of the race — though they are often brought earlier. Kentucky and New York have already insisted horses arrive days before the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, the first and third jewels in the Triple Crown.

Stuart Janney III, co-owner of the Kentucky Derby winner Orb, said the changes were overdue.

"We have to be very vigilant, we have to be on top of any new substances that could be on the horizon and cause a problem, and I think we have to be clever in the way we test," Janney said.

O'Neill is racing Goldencents in the Preakness. Jack Sisterson, an assistant trainer on his team, said O'Neill stresses the importance of the sport's rules and regulations to his team. He said O'Neill hires a private watchman to look after Goldencents and the team's other horses overnight.

"The last thing we want is someone coming into the barn and giving them something that we wouldn't," Sisterson said.

Until this year, the winner and runner-up in the Preakness were taken to a detention barn to be tested after the race under guidelines from the American Graded Stakes Committee. This year, Hopkins said, officials will test the third-place finisher as well.

Maryland just signed on as one of eight Mid-Atlantic states to agree to new, shared standards for administering the top 24 drugs most commonly used in the treatment of race horses. The standards are scheduled to take effect next year.

Janney wants to see those standards expand across the country. "One of the biggest problems we've got is a lack of uniformity," he said.

Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the new Mid-Atlantic medication standards will help, but more should be done. The overall population of thoroughbred horses in the country has "dramatically dropped" in the last five years, she said, even as the amount of racing has increased.

"All of the constituent groups in racing — the track owners, the horse owners, the hose trainers, the horse breeders — want to look out for the best interests of the horses, without question," said Goodall. "How best to do that is what everyone is working toward, but there's not one answer."

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