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CONTROVERSY SURROUNDS FREE HOUSE; PACIFIC CLASSIC ENTRANT MIGHT HAVE BEEN GIVEN BANNED DRUG.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI Horse Racing

A potential drug scandal, coinciding with the approach of a major race, has thrown Del Mar horseplayers an unwanted challenge this week.

How to assess Free House, a contender in the $1 million Pacific Classic on Saturday, in light of unconfirmed evidence the 1997 Santa Anita Derby winner had performance-enhancing clenbuterol in his system during an impressive victory the last time he raced?

Horseplayers love a puzzle. What we hate is a guessing game. This is a guessing game.

Clenbuterol, a bronchial dilator that is thought to have a quasi-steroidal effect on horses, was detected in Free House's urine following the colt's seven-length victory over Wild Wonder in the July 11 Bel Air Handicap at Hollywood Park.

He's one of 20 horses, spread among seven trainers, to have positive tests for clenbuterol following races at Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields and Cal-Expo between May 16 and July 11.

We don't know, in the case of Free House, whether the finding was accurate, because results of a split-sample test have yet to be announced by the California Horse Racing Board.

We also don't know, if it was accurate, exactly how much clenbuterol was involved.

So handicappers must ponder several possibilities:

The test was accurate, Free House raced under the influence of massive quantities of clenbuterol administered in an attempt to cheat or to get his handlers in trouble, and his Bel Air showing should be downgraded.

The test was wrong, Free House had nary a speck of the drug in his blood, and his performance was as good as it looked.

The test was accurate, Free House had a minuscule amount of clenbuterol in him, the remnants of a dose administered legally before a training run, a quantity detectable by increasingly refined lab procedures but too small to help him.

The test was wrong, Free House had nothing in him during the race, but ran faster because of the benefits of training on clenbuterol, and has since stopped training on the drug because his handlers are wary of tripping the test again.

The test was accurate, Free House had clenbuterol in him that hadn't cleared his system, and he continues to use it in training, meaning he could test positive after the Pacific Classic, becoming a modern-day Dancer's Image, the horse disqualified for a drug violation after winning the 1968 Kentucky Derby.

Obviously, the middle three are more likely than the first and last of those scenarios.

Free House trainer Paco Gonzalez has publicly denied using clenbuterol, which is prohibited in horses at race time but has been permitted in training since the Food and Drug Administration legalized possession in May. Gonzalez would face suspension and owners Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan would face the loss of the Bel Air purse if the positive test were confirmed.

Gonzalez, McCaffery and Toffan did not appear on Wednesday at the Pacific Classic post-position drawing and press conference, where they would have faced questions about the implications for this race.

And so a cloud hangs over Del Mar's biggest race, in which Free House is a solid 3-1 on the morning line as he and jockey Chris McCarron face the 6-5 entry of Gentlemen and Puerto Madero, 8-5 Touch Gold and five others at 1-1/4 miles.

Just as a cloud hangs over all of the trainers and horses facing clenbuterol charges. Whose victories are legitimate, and whose was chemically induced? This is why medication rules are important, because fans have to believe the form upon which they base their wagers is reliable.

Maybe the best solution for this week is the one suggested by Jeff Siegel, the syndicated handicapper and thoroughbred owner.

Ignore the whole mess.

``I'm going to evaluate Free House based on last year rather than on the basis of the Bel Air,'' Siegel said, referring to the gray colt's in-the-money performances in all three Triple Crown races, and his subsequent third-place finish against Touch Gold in the Haskell Invitational.

``I'm not going to hold it against him. I'm not going to pick him. But that's just because the other three horses are better.''

The undercard: The Pacific Classic day card, starting at 12:30 p.m., features one other important race and Del Mar management's guarantee that the pick-six pool will be at least $2 million.

In the 7-furlong Pat O'Brien Handicap, Son of a Pistol, ridden by Alex Solis, will try to become the first sprinter in recent memory to reel off four consecutive victories in Southern California.

The Pat O'Brien will be the fourth race. The Pacific Classic will be the seventh at 3:42 p.m.

A WEEK AT THE RACES

Del Mar standings: Jockeys (through Wednesday): Corey Nakatani, 20 winners; Alex Solis, 19; Gary Stevens, 15; Chris McCarron, 11; Kent Desormeaux, Matt Garcia and Garrett Gomez, 10. Trainers: Bruce Headley, 8; Barry Abrams, 7; Mel Stute, 6; Bob Baffert, 5; several tied with four.

Handicapper helper: Kentucky-based Touch Gold will try to buck a trend by winning the Pacific Classic on Saturday. The race's first seven winners were regulars on this circuit. Losers from out of state included Jolie's Halo, Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and Horses of the Year Concern and Cigar.

Upcoming stakes: At Del Mar: $100,000 Best Pal Stakes, 2-year-old fillies, 6-1/2 furlongs, today; $1 million Pacific Classic, 3-year-olds and up, 1-1/4 miles, and $150,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap, 3-year-olds and up, 7 furlongs, Saturday; $125,000 La Jolla Handicap, 3-year-olds, one mile on turf, Sunday. At Saratoga: $300,000 Sword Dancer Handicap, 3-year-olds and up, 1-1/2 miles, Saturday; $150,000 Adirondack, 2-year-old fillies, 6-1/2 furlongs, Monday; $150,000 Saratoga Special, 2-year-olds, 6-1/2 furlongs, Wednesday. At Monmouth Park: $150,000 Sorority, 2-year-old fillies, 6 furlongs, Saturday.

Mileposts: A quarter-horse yearling colt by First Down Dash was purchased for $650,000, a record auction price for the breed, by Oscar McArthur in Bonsall, Calif. . . . Average price at the first two nights of a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., thoroughbred yearling sale, $209,772, was up 28 percent from last year. The sale was to conclude Thursday night. . . . Leading 3-year-old filly Jersey Girl is through for the year after surgery to repair a right knee fracture. She apparently was injured running her 1998 record to 7 for 7 in the Test Stakes at Saratoga. . . . Anet won a race at Del Mar on Monday that was moved to the main track after jockeys complained that a sprinkler had saturated and softened part of the turf course. . . . Hard-luck jockey Goncalino Almeida won for the first time in five months aboard Sovereign's Crown on Saturday. He was 0 for 60 at Hollywood Park.

- Kevin Modesti

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Box: A WEEK AT THE RACES (See Text)
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 14, 1998
Words:1127
Previous Article:UCLA NOTEBOOK: NO. 7 FINE, FOR NOW.
Next Article:MEET'S 9TH DEATH OCCURS AT DEL MAR.


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