The Maryland Racing Commission approved new restrictions on anabolic steroids for thoroughbreds yesterday that are expected to be in place by Jan. 1.
The vote, which had been expected for weeks, followed a similar move last month by the Kentucky Racing Commission. New York, home of the Triple Crown's third jewel, the Belmont Stakes, is also considering stricter rules on doping.
Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia have similar restrictions in place.
The issue came to the forefront after filly Eight Belles collapsed in this year's Kentucky Derby and Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow acknowledged having used the anabolic steroid stanozolol on the Derby and Preakness winner. Dutrow, a Hagerstown native, has received fines and suspensions for doping violations since 2000. (Eight Belles' autopsy revealed no steroids.)
"I think the general consensus in the industry is that these drugs shouldn't be used the way they've been used," said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.
The new policy would add four anabolic steroids, including stanozolol, to the state's list of barred substances. An administrative panel composed of state delegates and senators must approve the measure before it could go into effect, Hopkins said. He said the racing commission approved the restrictions on an emergency basis so the review process could be expedited.
"I'm very proud that Maryland has joined the ban," said veteran trainer J. William Boniface of Darlington. "It's better for the sport, the sport's image and, more importantly, for the horse."
The restrictions would bar horses from having steroids in their blood above certain levels. Hopkins said veterinarians agree that the substances are harmless below those levels.
The commission based its standards on recommendations by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a national organization of horsemen, racing officials and veterinarians that is pushing for measures to improve the integrity of racing.
Boniface, who trained 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony, has little doubt that steroids are bad for horses.
"We've artificially stimulated growth in young horses with steroids to the detriment of the breed," he said. "Racing needs this for its public image. A lot of times you see a robust yearling who's been pushed along in its development by steroids. Too much growth leads to more bone problems and more unsoundness."
The issue is a long-standing one in Maryland, where Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. urged a national ban on drugs as far back as 1981.
The Maryland commission tests the first- and second-place finishers in every race. The policy approved yesterday does not include penalties for trainers caught doping. Hopkins said horsemen and racing officials will decide on those standards by Jan. 1.
Existing tests most commonly catch trainers using the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, or bute. They can receive suspensions and fines of $500 to $1,500 for such violations.
Hopkins said he does not expect the new regulations to have a major effect on most trainers. Those who work in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia are used to them, he said.
The Maryland vote is part of a national push for more consistent doping rules. At congressional hearings in June, horsemen and industry leaders decried the lack of uniform standards. When Dutrow defended himself before the Preakness, he complained that it was hard to keep up with the rules from one state to the next.
The inconsistency still gives breeders and trainers pause.
"Obviously, [the steroid restriction] is a good move," said Jim Steele, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But the thing is that it needs to be nationwide. We all need to be on the same playing field.
"I know one of the concerns that came up earlier was not that we weren't going to have a ban but when to ban [steroids], Steele said. "As people claim horses back and forth from different states, everyone understands that steroids take awhile to get out of the system. You could run into trouble if you claimed a horse from a state that was still allowing steroids and went to a state that didn't."
But Hopkins said Maryland and other racing states are more on the same page than ever.
"This shows that in the move for national uniformity, Maryland is certainly falling into step," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Mike Klingaman and Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.