Illegal use of clenbuterol has been thoroughbred racing's sorriest scandal in recent years. Little-known trainers became miracle workers by administering the medication; their cheating was so flagrant that they undermined bettors' confidence in the integrity of the game. Some were eventually caught when their horses tested positive for the drug, giving the sport a black eye it didn't need.

Naive outsiders might expect that the racing industry would try to rid itself of clenbuterol. But the industry traditionally moves in the opposite direction--it stops cheating by legalizing a banned substance. It did this with both Butazolidin and Lasix. And this week the Kentucky Racing Commission liberalized its rules governing the use of clenbuterol--a move that might be the first step toward wider national use of the once-forbidden drug.

Advocates tout clenbuterol as a therapeutic medication that won't affect horses' racing performance if it is properly controlled. Others see the Kentucky decision as just the latest demonstration of the racing industry's chronic inability to say no to drugs.

Clenbuterol helps many horses with respiratory problems, but thoroughbreds are not allowed to race with the aid of the drug. Any trace of the substance in post-race urine tests constitutes a violation that can result in a trainer's suspension. Trainers caught with a clenbuterol positive often protested that they administered the drug long before the race and thought that it would be out of the horse's system. Now Kentucky will permit a trace of clenbuterol to show up in the urine, and horses won't flunk the test unless the amount exceeds a certain threshold. Horsemen are being told that they can safely administer Ventipulmin Syrup--the oral form of clenbuterol--up to 72 hours before a race.

Bernie Hettel, executive director of the commission, said the board was guided by the recommendations of Thomas Tobin, a doctor and an expert at the University of Kentucky. Tobin advised: "Super-sensitive testing can detect traces of [clenbuterol] for one or more months after the last dose. . . . Such sensitive testing deprives horses in training of the therapeutic benefits of this agent. Less sensitive testing, consistent with a three-to-five day withdrawal period, prevents horses from running 'on' Ventipulmin Syrup, but allows its appropriate therapeutic use."

It is easy to react cynically whenever a veterinarian, trainer or spokesman for a horseman's organization utters the word "therapeutic"--particularly after the campaigns to get Bute and Lasix legalized in the 1970s.

The first trainers to use Lasix illegally were able to bring about stunning form reversals; sometimes they would claim a horse and improve him overnight, by as much as 10 or 20 lengths, by administering the diuretic. Eventually most trainers were clamoring to use the wondrous drug. So horsemen and veterinarians went before state racing commissions and assured them that Lasix was a therapeutic medication that didn't affect horses' form. Of course, everybody who had witnessed those 10- and 20-length form reversals knew this was poppycock, but even today horsemen and vets maintain this fiction.

And, now, here we go again. Until last year clenbuterol was banned by the Food and Drug Administration and wasn't allowed for any use in the United States. But it was legal in Canada, and certain Canadian trainers suddenly started performing remarkable training feats when they crossed the border. After the FDA lifted its ban and allowed clenbuterol in the United States, trainers with poor lifetime records started winning with 30 or 40 percent of their starters. Clenbuterol is obviously powerful stuff.

Kentucky officials believe that their guidelines will allow horses to benefit from the therapeutic benefits of clenbuterol without getting a boost in competition. But they can't know this for certain. Thomas Lomangino, director of Maryland's drug-testing laboratory, noted that most of the studies on clenbuterol had been done on infirm horses. "We need to know that it does not affect performance in healthy horses before we make it legal," Lomangino said.

But even if there is no more wholesale cheating with clenbuterol, the industry ought to look hard at the argument that its use should be liberalized because it is good for the horse. The vets and horsemen assured us years ago that thoroughbreds needed the therapeutic benefits of Butazolidin to withstand the stress of year-round racing. They assured us that horses need the therapeutic aid of Lasix because most modern horses suffer from respiratory problems, and now they make the same argument for clenbuterol.

Every other major racing nation forbids the presence of these drugs in a horse's system on race day, and the sport manages to survive well enough without them in England, France, Australia and Japan. But since America abandoned the traditional standard of "hay, oats and water," the quality of this country's thoroughbreds has steadily declined. In 1970, the dawn of the medication era, the average American horse made 10.2 starts per year. As the once-proud U.S. breeding industry began producing generation after generation of drug-dependent horses, the figure declined to 9.2 starts per horse in 1980 and 7.9 in 1990. By last year the average horse was running a pitiful 7.2 times per year. It is hard to accept the pro-clenbuterol arguments when the breed gets weaker and weaker as it gets more and more "therapeutic" medication.