Commentary

A leap forward for horse racing?

Updated: June 22, 2012, 1:40 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Kudos to electric green frogs. Who could have imagined they would flush out so many cheaters?

Cheaters threaten every sport, of course. And every sport must work relentlessly to identify unscrupulous competitors trying to take an illicit or unethical edge. But the challenge is especially important in horse racing simply because no other sport is so wed to the wager.

And probably no sport's cheaters are more culpable, more deserving of ignominy, than horse racing's because they don't stop at bamboozling bettors, which by itself would be despicable enough and, for the sport's popularity, pernicious. But the worst cheaters willingly ignore the welfare of the competitors.

No sport's cheaters are more culpable, more deserving of ignominy, than horse racing's because they don't stop at bamboozling bettors, but the worst cheaters willingly ignore the welfare of the competitors.

That's why all the hand wringing. That's why spotting cheaters has become so important. But it's also difficult, especially when pharmaceuticals are involved.

The line on medication hasn't always been clearly or fairly drawn, and so trying to figure out who's on which side of it has muddled more than a few heads. In the media, where certitude remains the hallmark of both the fool and the columnist, we haven't been especially perceptive or discerning either.

Identifying scoundrels can involve the troubling and confusing difficulty of distinguishing the cheaters who have mugged the game from the honest horsemen who have made a mistake. But suddenly the sport might be able to leapfrog that problem.

And so let's all raise our voices in hearty appreciation of an electric green denizen of the Amazonian rainforest because he and his opioid peptides have provided a foolproof, idiot-proof and media-proof way of telling the cheaters from the horsemen. Real horsemen don't play with frogs.

As I was saying … Lasix isn't the problem. EPO, ITPP, compounded clenbuterol and dermorphin, aka "frog juice," are the problem. But when it's stripped down, when the paint and varnish are removed, horse racing's drug problem is, as much as anything, a people problem.

Specifically, the problem is that some scoundrels are willing to cheat, even at the cost of damaging the sport's image and reputation and even at the risk of injuring horses and jockeys. And horse racing, everyone would agree, should attempt to rid itself of scoundrels, if only the sport and its regulators could spot them.

Some cheaters wear black hats, but only in movies. Some cheaters might have pine tar in their gloves, but only on the pitcher's mound. And now horse racing's cheaters, some of them anyway, are easily identifiable, too, thanks in part to an arboreal magician who's known in ranine circles as the giant leaf frog.

This week, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which is comprised of 25 industry stakeholder groups, issued a bulletin on dermorphin, or "frog juice." The RMTC is horse racing's department of research and science, and as such it's at the forefront in efforts to safeguard the sport's integrity.

In its bulletin this week, the RMTC warns of a "recent threat to racing integrity." And that threat is dermorphin. Said to be 30-40 times more potent than morphine, dermorphin was discovered in the 1980s as part of the peptide cocktail produced naturally in the epidermal secretions of certain arboreal frogs in South America, such as the giant leaf frog and his cousin, the waxy monkey tree frog.

A powerful horsemen's group has taken the position that the use of dermorphin is doping, pure and simple.

And now dermorphin has turned up in horse racing. This is almost certainly a synthetic version of the drug, according to Robert Lewis, the chairman of the RMTC, and not the natural stuff. In other words, there's some sleazeball-savant out there manufacturing and selling dermorphin on the black market.

But here's the good news: Industrial Laboratories in Denver, Colo., has developed a test for discovering dermorphin in both blood and urine. The sport has responded to the threat. And so far there have been about 30 reported positives; there could be more as the test becomes available at more labs.

Already one Louisiana trainer, Alvin Smith Jr., has been fined and suspended. Although Smith was suspended six months by the Delta Downs stewards, his case has been referred to the Louisiana Racing Commission, which can, and probably will, extend the suspension.

A powerful horsemen's group, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, has taken the position that the use of dermorphin is doping, pure and simple. Clearly dermorphin should never be at the racetrack or in a racehorse. There's no ambiguity here, no dispensations. This is cheating.

It's the worst kind of cheating, too, because it not only bamboozles bettors and threatens the integrity of the sport, but also has the potential of seriously threatening the competitors. But horse racing has caught these cheaters, and that's the point. An electric green frog, along with a laboratory in Denver, has given the sport an unequivocal way to identify cheaters. Now the sport must show them the door.