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Dose of Reality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For all his fame and fortune as the nation’s leading horse trainer, Bob Baffert finds himself embroiled in a dispute not uncommon to many Americans: He’s fighting the system.

Or, in Baffert’s case, the California Horse Racing Board and its drug-testing rules.

Baffert, winner of this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes with Point Given, is embarking on what figures to be a long and contentious battle with the racing board over its ruling to suspend him for 60 days because one of his horses tested positive for a trace amount of morphine.

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The controversial decision has raised objections from horsemen who believe the racing board’s zero-tolerance policy regarding morphine is harming the sport by punishing trainers for low-level drug findings detected through ultra-sensitive testing procedures that don’t allow for incidental contamination.

“The horse racing board certainly has a legitimate interest in limiting those drugs that enhance a horse’s performance,” said Rick Arthur, a veterinarian who has been involved in equine drug-testing issues for 15 years.

"[But] this entire episode has done more to tarnish the integrity of horse racing than anything. It’s a case of the testing being so stringent, rather than morphine being a widespread problem. The whole thing doesn’t make sense.

‘I don’t know if the [zero-tolerance] rule should be repealed. The entire drug-testing process needs to be reexamined.”

Other states have responded to similar cases by establishing morphine threshold levels, and California officials have indicated they are eager to receive scientific evidence that could prompt them to follow suit.

“Hopefully we’re trying to get the rules changed so it doesn’t happen to anybody else,” Baffert said.

Morphine, which has the effect of a depressant in humans, works as a stimulant in horses and is considered a Class 1 drug, the most serious among the state’s seven classifications.

Baffert’s supporters say it is preposterous that the flamboyant, white-maned trainer--perhaps the most recognizable figure in horse racing--would risk suspension and damage to his reputation by ordering the doping of a horse. Baffert has all but clinched his fifth consecutive training title with more than $10 million in purse earnings this year.

Nautical Look tested positive for a trace amount of morphine after winning a $58,650 turf allowance race at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000, while Baffert was at Churchill Downs preparing Captain Steve to run in last year’s Kentucky Derby.

“At first I thought they were joking with me,” Baffert said. “Then, when I found out [the charge] was serious, I was pretty upset . . . Someone is out to make a name for themselves at our expense.”

Ron Ellis, a longtime trainer in Southern California, contends the circumstances of Baffert’s case don’t fit the alleged crime.

“Why would Baffert choose that horse in that race?” Ellis asked. “If you’re going to use [morphine], you’re not going to use it in an allowance race with one horse.”

Or, as Arthur put it, “If you’re on top of the world, how do you get any more on top of the heap?”

Norman Hester said this type of conjecture is irrelevant. The technical director for Truesdail Laboratories in Tustin, which tests two-thirds of the urine and blood samples collected by the racing board, said California rules clearly state the limits of drugs allowed in horses on race day.

While morphine legally can be administered for therapeutic reasons, such as an injected painkiller, it is the responsibility of the trainer to make sure all traces of the drug clear the horse’s system by race day, a condition of the trainer insurer rule. Trainers and veterinarians say morphine has all but disappeared from typical use at race tracks.

“If you look at our rules, they’re not a whole lot different than Olympic rules,” Hester said. “It’s similar to athletes being disqualified for [using] cold medications. If the rules state that you can’t have a drug in your system, and you have it in your system, then you lose your prize. It’s zero tolerance.”

Hester oversaw the testing of Nautical Look’s urine sample, which was split to allow Baffert to have the sample tested by an independent laboratory at Texas A&M.; That test also came back positive for trace levels of morphine.

According to the racing board report of Baffert’s hearing before the Santa Anita stewards April 4, morphine concentrations of 73 nanograms per milliliter were found in Nautical Look’s urine sample.

Stephen Barker, a professor of veterinary medicine at Louisiana State and a chemist for the Louisiana Racing Commission, testified on Baffert’s behalf at his hearing and stated that a morphine finding that minute is inconsistent with intentional doping. He stated a horse would need a significantly higher concentration of morphine in its system to enhance performance.

Others share Barker’s opinion.

“The amount [of morphine] that showed up could not affect an ant, let alone a 1,000-pound animal,” said Bobby Frankel, a Hall of Fame trainer.

Cynthia Kollias-Baker, a veterinary pharmacologist at the state’s other drug-testing lab at UC Davis, said a horse would need a minimum reading of about 1,000 nanograms per milliliter to produce an effect.

But its effectiveness as a performance-enhancing drug is debatable. Kollias-Baker said she has given up to 20 milligrams of morphine to a horse with minimal effect.

“I didn’t see any stimulation or excitation,” she said.

However, Kollias-Baker said that doesn’t mean morphine and other drugs aren’t used in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.

“Sometimes things are administered to horses that make no logical sense,” she said. “It’s just stupid, but we know that it goes on.”

Exactly what went on last year in Baffert’s barn at Hollywood Park leading to Nautical Look’s overturned victory is unclear.

Baffert testified during his hearing that he believed the positive morphine finding from Nautical Look was the result of unintentional contamination.

Baffert stated that his employees often have bakery goods around the barn that may contain poppy seeds, which could cause a positive reading for morphine if ingested by a horse.

Kollias-Baker said if a horse ate a gram, or tablespoon, of poppy seeds, it most likely would test positive for morphine for up to 24 hours. In 1996, Frankel argued successfully that a positive test could have been caused by poppy-seed bagels being around the barn. The charge was dropped.

Baffert also contends that the contamination of Nautical Look could have been caused by the horse ingesting tainted bedding or feed. At Baffert’s hearing, photographs were introduced that depicted alfalfa fields in the Antelope Valley--the main source of grains and feeds furnished to Southern California thoroughbred tracks--adjacent to fields of poppies. Some experts, however, say California poppies are not a source of morphine, an opium derivative.

In ruling against Baffert, stewards David Samuel, Tom Ward and Ingrid Fermin concluded that feed contamination was unlikely, and stated that “corroborating testimony neither established that food products were abundant in the barn, nor that the personnel had consumed bakery products close to the horse.”

The stewards also took Baffert to task for not doing a better job of securing his barn from outside influences.

“Since [Baffert] does not participate in the pre-employment testing of his employees, he increases the likelihood that his operation might not be a drug-free workplace; thereby, increasing the risk of drug exposure to his horses,” the stewards concluded.

Despite the stewards’ ruling, some believe there was a contamination problem at the time Nautical Look tested positive.

Ellis said that’s the only reasonable explanation for horses trained by three of his colleagues testing positive for morphine within a two-month period last year at Hollywood Park. They were the first morphine positives in the state in more than 2 1/2 years.

In the 1990s, there were six morphine positives reported in California, five that resulted in trainer suspensions ranging from 45 to 120 days.

A month after Baffert was charged, two horses trained by Frankel tested positive after finishing third and first, respectively, in separate races in June 2000. Later that month, a second-place horse trained by Jesus Mendoza tested positive. Both trainers have hearings pending.

“Obviously, it’s a contamination thing,” Frankel said.

Richard Sams, director of Ohio’s drug-testing lab at Ohio State University, said contamination could result from processed feed manufacturers purchasing waste products from commercial bakeries, where poppy seeds are used. Sams called it a “fairly common” practice.

“It’s something that could explain why [Hollywood Park] had a rash of four [morphine] positives in such a small amount of time,” Sams said. “The [contaminated] feed is consumed, then it isn’t there anymore.”

Drug-testing controversies are nothing new in California:

* In 1989, charges against five trainers whose horses had tested positive for cocaine were dismissed because of problems in the collection and testing of urine samples. Among the trainers were icons Wayne Lukas and the late Laz Barrera.

* Later that year, more than 50 horse urine specimens that contained traces of cocaine were ignored because collection of the samples did not conform to new guidelines set up in response to the earlier problems.

* In 1995, fines against five trainers whose horses had test positive for scopolamine were rescinded after the horsemen proved that the drug, a depressant that grows naturally in jimson weed and other vegetation, came from contaminated loads of feed or bedding.

* Also in 1995, a horse trained by Bob Hess Jr. tested positive for morphine after a race at Hollywood Park. Hess argued that the horse had been contaminated, and one of his grooms acknowledged at a hearing that before feeding the horse he had used heroin, which can show up as morphine in urine testing. Hess lost an appeal and served a 60-day suspension.

Baffert, who was to begin serving his suspension June 25, was granted a stay by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, pending appeal. The matter is back in the hands of the racing board, which probably will refer it to the Office of Administrative Hearings as the case winds its way through a maze of legal proceedings.

Meanwhile, Baffert’s attorney, Neil Papiano, is mounting a defense that will try to poke holes in the racing board’s trainer insurer rule, pointing out that Truesdail Laboratories randomly discarded the blood sample of Nautical Look before it could be tested.

Several experts downplayed the importance of the blood being discarded, saying low levels of morphine would almost certainly be undetectable in blood. They said blood is primarily tested to detect non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.

Two states, Louisiana and Ohio, have adopted morphine threshold levels that some horsemen would like to see implemented in California. The cutoff level in Louisiana is 75 nanograms per milliliter. In Ohio, it’s 50 nanograms. Nautical Look’s 73-nanogram reading would have passed scrutiny in Louisiana but not in Ohio.

Other states reportedly are conforming as well. Kollias-Baker and Sams said they strongly believe that testing labs in several states have adopted “unofficial” morphine threshold levels.

So why hasn’t California established a cutoff level for morphine, as it has for other drugs? One theory is that racing officials are wary of provoking animal-rights groups, which might protest the implementation of such a policy.

Still, sentiment remains strong among some horsemen that a change in policy should be explored.

“Testing is fine, but they have to have a threshold,” Frankel said. “Even the owners have discussed it. They don’t want to lose purses over this.”

Those sympathetic to Baffert’s predicament lament the lack of progress California has shown in adapting to today’s sophisticated, and some would say unforgiving, drug-testing technology.

“I feel real bad for Baffert,” Ellis said. “Testing has gotten so precise you can find out anything that has been in a horse. . . . It could come from anywhere.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

TRAINER STANDINGS

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Through July 1 STARTS 1ST 2ND 3RD MONEY Bob Baffert 313 65 55 39 $10,355,192 Robert Frankel 185 39 39 25 4,884,419 William Mott 394 72 70 74 4,362,183 Scott Lake 786 231 167 117 4,346,175 Steven Asmussen 704 149 116 111 4,325,748 Todd Pletcher 246 58 41 25 3,389,516 Nicholas Zito 243 50 39 33 2,985,748 Elliott Walden 289 53 46 38 2,856,934 Mark Hennig 271 48 41 38 2,769,536 John Kimmel 262 59 48 26 2,705,504

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