The use of medication on horses has become the kind of emotionally charged issue in the racing world that abortion is in the real world. You're either for it or against it; there is no middle ground, and nobody left who views the subject with objectivity or neutrality.

When NBC's Pete Axthelm took part in a round-table discussion here and made a few pro-medication remarks, trainers surrounded him afterwards to shake his hand. A couple days later, Axthelm and a camera crew went to a meeting of state racing commissioners (who have a largely antimedication stance) to conduct some interviews. The commissioners left by the back door of the building to avoid talking to him. That's how polarized the racing world has become.

Even veterinarians and chemists cannot agree on purely scientific questions about the properties of Butazolidin and other widely used medications; they're polarized, too. So when the Washington-based American Horse Council set out to create some kind of industry-wide consensus about medication, it seemed to be tackling an impossible task.

The AHC is the industry's lobbyist on Capitol Hill, but Tom Aronson, the group's executive secretary for racing, said, "The difficulty we had in hearings was that every time someone raised the issue of drugs we'd get our butts kicked. We had to have some legitimate answers to give to Congress; we needed research."

So in December the AHC called together people from every segment of the industry and formed a committee to study medication. They are still very polarized, but Aronson said, "The answers to the whole medication question are going to be on the table soon."

The issue in this whole dispute, Aronson said, really isn't the moral question of medication vs. no medication. Every state allows horses to train with the aid of Butazolidin, and traces of the drug will show up in their postrace blood tests. Even in New York, which allows no medications, horses can use Bute up to 48 hours before a race, which would still leave a trace of the drug in their blood. So the real question is: How large a trace of Bute is permissible?

Two factors will determine the answer. What size dose of Bute will constitute its legitimate use as an anti-inflammatory drug (as opposed to a painkiller that permits lame horses to go to the post)? And how large a dose might interfere with the testing for illegal drugs?

The American Horse Council went to the American Association of Equine Practitioners and asked them for a definitive statement about the proper dosage of Bute. After a good deal of internal wrangling they gave an answer: two grams administered intraveneously per 24 hours. Then the council asked racing chemists how much of a trace this dosage would leave in postrace blood tests. The answers are not available yet, but they are likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of 2 or 3 micrograms per milliliter of plasma.

After getting this answer definitively, the AHC will then ask the chemists: Will this amount of Bute interfere with testing for illegal drugs? There is considerable debate and confusion on this subject; the anti-Bute people regularly raise the "interference" issue as one of the main arguments for their position. But while powerful doses of Bute probably do confuse drug testing, it is very likely that a moderate trace of Bute, in the 2 to 3 microgram per milliliter range, would not constitute interference.

The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has objected to this kind of a standard on the grounds that some horses could be administered a legitimate dose of Bute and yet flunk the postrace test because they have an unusual metabolism. The AHC wants to determine how often this might happen, and to make provisions for special controlled tests on such exceptional animals.

It is crucial for the horsemen to be part of any consensus on medication. When the National Association of State Racing Commissioners tried to formulate a national drug rule in 1980, they didn't consult the horsemen, who have been battling against their restrictive guidelines ever since.

Even if every segment of the racing industry agreed on a drug rule, getting it adopted nationally would not be easy, because so many different jurisdictions oversee the sport. But the American Horse Council hopes that it will be able to marshal such a formidable set of facts about the effects of Butazolidin and the testing for it that its position will prevail through the sheer force of logic and reason. If that were to happen, it would be the first time in the whole history of legalized medication.