INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The California Horse Racing Board began collecting blood samples for anabolic steroid testing on Wednesday. While the penalty phase of the new steroid policy will not take effect until later this summer at the earliest, trainers expressed concern on Wednesday that they could be sanctioned for claiming a horse who has recently been administered steroids.
Trainers were advised in the spring to stop administering anabolic steroids to race-ready horses to allow for a satisfactory withdrawal period before testing began this week. Steroids were allowed to be administered to horses without restrictions in California until earlier this year.
For at least the next two weeks, trainers who have horses test in excess of the permitted levels of the four anabolic steroids allowed for training - boldenone, nandrolone, stanozolol, and testosterone - will receive a notice from the racing board informing them of the overage. They will not face sanctions during that time frame.
Later this month, at a date yet to be determined by racing board officials, trainers will be given warnings for the same infractions. They will not face any sanctions for a warning, but a warning could lead to more severe sanctions in the event of an overage when full rules take effect.
Later this year - probably in September, said the racing board's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur - the racing board will begin penalizing trainers whose horses test above trace levels for the four anabolic steroids. The penalties will include a loss of purse and a fine or suspension for the trainer.
The racing board is scheduled to vote on a rule change on July 17 that would move the four anabolic steroids from Class 4 into Class 3, which would result in stiffer penalties for a violation.
Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers organization, said trainers are fearful that a horse claimed in the near future could test positive after its next start, and the trainer would be hit with a warning.
"The greatest concern is the horses that you claim," Halpern said. "What if I claim a horse that's on steroids and I don't know it."
Arthur said the concern from trainers is "overblown," and that trainers have faced similar concern in the past from other medications that can stay in a horse's system for a lengthy period of time, such as tranquilizers.
One trainer, who requested anonymity, said he was concerned that a claimed horse needs approximately 45 days before an anabolic steroid would dissipate from its system. If such a horse were claimed this week, for example, the horse would be sidelined for much of the lucrative Del Mar meeting, which runs from July 16 to Sept. 3.
Arthur said that anabolic steroid use in California has dropped "70 percent compared to what we were seeing before the anabolic steroid issue was even discussed."
"We've always looked at anabolic steroids. With testing at the new levels, we have been looking at this off and on from earlier this year. We're trying to figure out how big a problem it is in California. We continue to look at it. Since we announced our policy, it looks like it's dropped 70 to 80 percent."
Arthur said it was unclear when the racing board would change its policy to distributing warnings instead of notices.
"If it looks like people are cooperating, we'll go longer - four weeks," he said. "If people are shining us on, we'll get tough sooner than later. That's the board's decision, not mine. I will make a recommendation."