With a unanimous vote of confidence from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the steroid ban could take effect as early as this fall's meet at Turfway Park and would be well under way in time for next year's Kentucky Derby. Gov. Steve Beshear has said he'll push it through swiftly using an emergency regulation.
While the ban is tough, it's not nearly as tough as the one proposed by Kentucky's Equine Drug Research Council earlier this month. That group had called for suspensions of up to three years for trainers and veterinarians whose horses fail a steroid test, but the authority revised the penalties, capping them at a 60-day suspension for first time offenders.
Jerry Yon, who chairs the drug council, said the changes happened because of concerns from trainers that their careers could be ruined through one positive test, even if they didn't personally administer the illegal drug or know about it. The racing commission's version more closely resembles a national model that racing states are being encouraged to follow, Yon said.
"Nationwide, it's too new for us to go from a slap on the wrist to the death penalty," Yon said. "There had to be an intermediate step, and that's what we've chosen here."
The change came as a relief to John Ward, a trainer who is a member of both organizations. He had argued passionately for the drug council to be more lenient on trainers in the event of a misunderstanding.
"Steroid regulation is a moving target," Ward said. "It was kind of like, if you foul a guy under the basket, you get thrown out of the game."
Ward said he was satisfied with the new version.
Under the Kentucky ban, horses would not be allowed to race with any steroid in their system. Three specific steroids could be given for therapeutic purposes at the request of a certified veterinarian, and even those horses would be prohibited from racing without proof that they've been off the drugs for 60 days.
Among the new steroids that would be banned in Kentucky is stanozolol, which Big Brown had in his system before winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. It was not illegal in any of the Triple Crown states this year, and Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, has said he only uses it to brighten his horses' coats and increase their appetites.
Earlier this summer, Kentucky racing officials suspended Dutrow for 15 days for violating drug rules with another horse. He has appealed the suspension.
Once Beshear signs the emergency order enacting the steroid ban, a 90-day grace period would begin.
If a horse tests positive in the final 30 days of that period but there is no proof the steroid dose was administered after the ban took place, it would be considered a warning but would hike the penalties for future violations. If there is proof that the drug was administered during the grace period, it would be would be considered a full violation of the drug rule.
"This is a very strict rule," said Robert Beck, racing commission chairman. "We're proud of it, and we're going to live by it."
Besides approving the steroid ban, the racing commission met briefly in closed session Monday and decided to extend until Nov. 1 the suspension of trainer Patrick Biancone, who was earlier found in violation of other drug rules.
Biancone's punishment had been set to expire Apr. 30. It was extended after an investigation into his activities at Lexington's Hurricane Hall Farm, with the commission finding he had violated its order to avoid any connection to training horses during the suspension.
"All disciplinary agreements approved by the commission are expected to be carried out by all parties and Mr. Biancone is no exception," said Lisa Underwood, racing commission executive director.