When a 4-year-old filly named Chernobyl Princess crossed the wire in front in Thursday’s first race at Aqueduct, she became not just the first winner of a new year but also the first winner of a new era in New York racing. Like all horses in the race, Chernobyl Princess was required to run steroid free.
A new set of racing regulations banning the use of anabolic steroids went into effect Thursday at the state’s racetracks, ending a decades-old practice.
Jeff Odintz, the trainer of Chernobyl Princess, said the rules had little effect on him because he had never used steroids with his horses.
“I’m glad they did this because I think it’s better for the horses if they don’t get them,” Odintz said. “I’m not really sure how much this will level the playing field. I’ve always felt that they are equine athletes and the main thing you needed from them was speed. I didn’t see why steroids would be a help.”
But other trainers apparently felt differently. Some veteran horsemen said they first saw steroid use in the mid-1960s and noted that steroids helped finicky eaters with their appetites. Though steroids may not necessarily increase speed, they could create a stronger, bigger animal. With no federal or state laws preventing the use of most steroids, most racing jurisdictions permitted them. Steroids were legal in 2008 in the three states holding Triple Crown races.
A 2003 study conducted by Pennsylvania racing officials found that 60 percent of horses racing in that state had been treated with at least one steroid. Pennsylvania later banned steroids, but other states were slow to act.
The anti-steroid movement gained momentum when it was revealed that Big Brown, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, was treated with the drug before the Derby. A public outcry ensued, causing many states to act.
In October, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board announced that steroids would no longer be permitted beginning Jan. 1. Trainers were warned to take their horses off steroids immediately because the drugs can stay in a horse’s system for as long as 60 days.
Mike Hushion, a trainer who had his horses on steroids before October, said Thursday that he favored the new rules.
“This was long overdue,” said Hushion, who estimated that 25 percent of his stable had been treated with steroids before the ban. “I couldn’t believe everyone took so long to get rid of steroids. The sport is lucky there weren’t more headlines about this or that people didn’t make a bigger deal out of it.”
Bruce Levine, among the leading trainers in New York, also favored the ban.
“This is a good idea,” he said. “I had stopped using them with most of my horses because they were shipping to states where they were already banned. They help a horse eat a little bit, but I haven’t missed them. I just had the best year I’ve ever had, and I basically did it steroid free. I found out they don’t make that much of a difference.”
The top three finishers in each race, and any horse that is claimed, receive drug tests in New York. The stewards, at their discretion, can also order a test on any horse.
Starting Thursday, the trainer of any horse that tests positive will be penalized. According to Carmine Donofrio, a steward who represents the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, the penalty for steroid use has yet to be determined. In California, a trainer receiving a positive test for steroids is suspended for 30 days.
Vincent Mazzeo, one of only a handful of fans braving the cold and huddling on the rail after the first race Thursday, said he was unaware that horses were no longer allowed to run on steroids. But he said he welcomed any rules that cut down on drug use.
“They got to get all the drugs out of this game,” he said. “I guess steroids is a good place to start.”