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Facing horse racing's drug problems

6/23/2012

Yes, horse racing has a drug problem; in fact, it has several drug problems. But the most serious threats to the sport are ignorance and confusion.

Over the course of this upcoming week that leads up to the Belmont Stakes, many people, I expect, will pontificate and bloviate about the sport's drug, or medication, problems. The soapbox will become crowded with Savonarola-type personalities. I envy them their certainty. One or two might even know something about the subject.

The medication issue has followed the Triple Crown, accompanying trainer Doug O'Neill into the stable areas at Churchill Downs and Pimlico and Belmont Park, into the spotlight of widespread media attention and ultimately into the popular awareness. With each victory by I'll Have Another, the issue has grown so that it now threatens to overshadow a spectacular racehorse that could become the 12th ever to sweep the famed series.

Now, that's a problem.

The medication issue has followed the Triple Crown, accompanying trainer Doug O'Neill into the stable areas at Churchill Downs and Pimlico and Belmont Park …


Horse racing's critics often save their sharpest barbs for the Triple Crown season, when the sport has its largest audience. The criticism's like Oleander, poisonously blooming every year.

Poison usually gets attention anyway. But the criticism this season, along with the focus on medication, has gained momentum in part because of O'Neill, who's described by one New York newspaper as having a "troubled record." Would the medication issue have persisted if a horse trained by, say, Kiaran McLaughlin or Todd Pletcher had won the Kentucky Derby? That question is for others to answer.

But the issue was guaranteed to ripen in New York, just before the Belmont Stakes, because the California Horse Racing Board recently suspended O'Neill 45 days and fined him $15,000 (effective July 1). The penalties stem from a post-race examination in August of 2010 that indicated Argenta, a horse trained by O'Neill, exceeded the permitted level for total carbon dioxide (TCO2). O'Neill was also suspended and fined in Illinois in 2010 for a horse in his care having an elevated level of TCO2.

Elevated TCO2 levels are taken as prima facie evidence of "milkshaking," which can help offset the buildup of lactic acid in a horse's muscles. O'Neill repeatedly has denied ever "milkshaking" a horse.

And, frankly, I believe him. So does the California Horse Racing Board.

In its ruling, the CHRB said the hearing officer (Steffan Imhoff) agreed that "the evidence demonstrated that Argenta had not been milkshaked" and concluded "there was no evidence of any intentional acts on the part of O'Neill in connection with this incident."

A "milkshake" is a simple mixture of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes pumped into a horse's stomach. In the 1990s "milkshakes" were common, given openly, perhaps even with the casual assistance of a state veterinarian. Nobody thought he was doing something sinister. And although "milkshakes" have been banned everywhere, some veterinarians contend that the mixture, when administered properly, is beneficial.

Still, "milkshakes" have no place at the racetrack. The integrity of the competition depends on there being a consistent and level playing field.

Even though an oral paste, along with other factors, can also raise levels, Argenta's TCO2 level clearly exceeded the limit, and O'Neill was the trainer. In 2010, he apparently allowed or did something that led to the elevated levels. That's why the CHRB fined and suspended him.

But does that make O'Neill one of horse racing's bad guys, as some, who didn't bet on I'll Have Another, seem predisposed to believe? Does it mean he represents one of horse racing's drug problems?

I don't know. I have watched him and observed his operation for two weeks -- which is probably two weeks longer than most of his critics -- and can say only that the horses in his barn receive exceptional care and that their trainer genuinely cares about them. Beyond that, O'Neil has accepted responsibility for his past and has been an affable ambassador for the game.

I don't know whether he represents one of the sport's drug problems. But I'm certain of this: The perception that this Triple Crown is somehow tainted is a problem.

A woman whose interest in the sport is, at best, casual recently asked me if I'll Have Another is going to win the Triple Crown.

"I think he has a very good chance to do just that," I said, without further explanation, and the woman looked as if I had just stolen her slice of peach pie.

"But didn't I read somewhere that this guy drugs his horses?" she asked.

Thanks, I thought. Thanks to everybody who hasn't allowed ignorance and confusion to interfere with passing judgment.

"You must be thinking of the Dallas Cowboys and every other team in the NFL," I told the woman, with a knowing and complicit wink. "They drug the players, you know."

Yes, horse racing has many drug problems. And perception is one of them, thanks in part to the prevalent ignorance and confusion in the media and even among some regulators. As a result, the sport often fails to distinguish between mistakes and cheating, between therapeutic medication and illicit drugs, between a meaningful "positive" and a meaningless overage. "No tolerance" has become synonymous with "no intelligence."

Some of the Savonarolas, both in the sport and in the media, would like to ban all race-day medications, starting with Lasix, or furosemide, as if they're all vanities to be tossed onto a bonfire. Furosemide does not "mask" other drugs. That was once a valid argument against its use, perhaps, but given the sophistication of modern testing, the argument has become specious. Still, furosemide isn't allowed on race days in Europe, and some have valid reasons for wanting to ban it here. Nevertheless, I don't regard furosemide as one the sport's drug problems.

Some people might insist on believing whatever they want to believe, or whatever's necessary for their own comfort, and so will even dismiss science. But the science is rather clear on this subject: Furosemide discourages pulmonary hemorrhaging. And anybody who ever has seen a horse gushing like a fountain until it has been drained of life will believe anything that inhibits pulmonary hemorrhaging is a good thing. And would banning Lasix change anybody's perception anyway? Probably not.

Yes, horse racing has many drug problems, but, frankly, it has become tiresome to hear American racing criticized because of an assumption that the horses here aren't treated as humanely as they are in Europe. They eat horses in Europe!

The "vast majority" of "positive" post-race drug tests in American racing have resulted from therapeutic medication being administered too close to the day of the race, according to Robert Lewis, the chairman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and one of the most respected veterinarians in the country. He's a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

For some medications, he said, there have "not been good guidelines and speed limits." But that soon could change because the RMTC has dedicated "a tremendous amount of money and time to get good science on therapeutic drugs." The RMTC, Lewis, will soon issue guidelines that, if followed, will enable trainers to avoid the mistakes that have in the past led to "positive" tests and ultimately to an unfavorable perception of the sport.

Even then, though, horse racing still could have many medication problems. Erythropoietin (EPO), which can stimulate the production of red blood cells, is still out there. Potentially very harmful, even fatal, it has no place in racing, and anybody using it to enhance a horse's performance should never be allowed to set foot on a racetrack again. ITPP (my-inositol trispyrophosphate), which supposedly can boost hemoglobin, is out there, too, even though a test to detect it has been developed in Hong Kong.

Beyond the introduction of new drugs and the use of such illicit drugs as EPO, there's the abuse of therapeutic drugs, most notably clenbuterol hydrochloride. It's possibly the most abused drug in racing.


"There are always people on the edge, and that's true in any sport or endeavor," Lewis said. "But the pace of development of new products [drugs assumed to enhance performance] has accelerated … The labs try to stay ahead of that, and by and large they've done a good job."

And beyond the introduction of new drugs and the use of such illicit drugs as EPO, there's the abuse of therapeutic drugs, most notably clenbuterol hydrochloride. It's possibly the most abused drug in racing.

Clenbuterol is a long-lasting bronchodilator, commonly given to horses with respiratory problems. But it also encourages the development of muscle mass, and some trainers seem to use it as a substitute for anabolic steroids, which have been banned. In some barns, every horse gets clenbuterol each and every day, up until a few days (it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) before racing. That's a lot of respiratory problems.

"You can make a strong scientific argument for the benefit of furosemide in racehorses," Lewis said. "But you can't defend these mega-doses of clenbuterol, and you can't defend keeping a horse on it indefinitely."

Trainers aren't chemists; they often don't know the long-term effects of what they're giving their horses. Perhaps they should take a course every year to update their knowledge. And if they don't care what the long-term effects are, they shouldn't have a license.

I suspect no other professional athlete could pass the drug tests that racehorses pass every day. But, yes, the sport has many drug problems, many medication issues. There isn't even any agreement on rules or penalties. And all the problems are exacerbated by confusion and ignorance.

Making Doug O'Neill and his TCO2 violations the focus of the Belmont is, more than anything, indicative of how profound the ignorance can be, and so is making Lasix the focus of any medication debate. Those aren't the most serious problems.

The sport continues to make genuine progress in terms of the safety and care for racehorses. Despite what some might believe, the sport is benevolent, and the majority of horsemen genuinely and affectionately care for their horses. The whole situation, I think, has improved significantly the last few years.

But many problems remain. And solving the real problems begins with identifying them.