- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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The year-and-a-half fight for Rick Lentini ended Tuesday when he found out that the World Anti-Doping Agency had dropped deer-antler velvet from its prohibited substances list.
Lentini, CEO of a company called Nutronics Labs, which says it produces more deer-antler velvet than anyone in the world, had been fighting the perception that the product was closely connected to steroids.
"I feel vindicated," Lentini said. "It was the right decision."
Deer-antler velvet, which is a coating that aids growth on a deer's antlers, has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. It contains IGF-1, which is considered a precursor to human growth hormone. Like HGH, it is not detectable in urine drug tests.
Several athletes who had used it professed to feeling the difference in aiding their recovery. Deer-antler velvet has been said to help everything from heart function to muscle recovery though independent studies to determine the veracity of such claims has been few and far between.
It exploded onto the scene in the U.S. two years ago when stories of its worth and stealth emerged, but then the market got crushed.
In the summer of 2011, St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora won a $5.4 million settlement with a company called S.W.A.T.S., which sold a deer-antler velvet spray that Vobora said led to his testing positive for methyltestosterone. Although it was never proved that the product itself originally tested positive for the substance, and subsequent independent tests proved it did not contain the banned steroid, the Major League Baseball Players Association warned players that taking deer-antler velvet could result in a positive test of methyltestosterone.
After word of the letter got out, and it was recounted in publication after publication, Lentini filed a libel lawsuit against the union, but once the union said it would defend itself, Lentini's small company had to give in last month and drop the case. Although some performance-enhancers garner more business when they are banned, Lentini says that, after the initial pop, his business declined by 40 percent.
"We kept telling people that it was steroid-free, but they had a hard time believing us," Lentini said. "They kept asking us why we were banned."
Then came the big break. After golfer Vijay Singh admitted to using deer-antler velvet, the PGA Tour followed up with the World Anti-Doping Agency, which told the tour that it no longer considered deer-antler velvet and IGF-1 a prohibited substance. On Tuesday, when the PGA Tour released its findings that Singh would indeed not be suspended, it revealed for the first time that deer-antler velvet had been taken off the list.
That's how Lentini found out.
"I'm elated for Vijay," said Lentini, who says he wrote a letter to the PGA Tour on Singh's behalf.
He's also happy for his own company, hoping that the damage done is a thing of the past. Not surprisingly, orders were up Tuesday afternoon.