They may be wanting of ethics, human decency, integrity, morals and common sense, but you cannot deny the ingenuity of those who would discover a powerful drug excreted by a tropical amphibian and bring it to the racetrack. And you thought cobra venom was pushing the envelope.
The racing industry's knee-jerk reaction to its current medication controversies and drug scandals dominates the conversation.
The racing industry's knee-jerk reaction to its current medication controversies and drug scandals dominates the conversation. But when viewed in perspective, if the amplified reaction is propelled by the political correctness currently in vogue, these issues are really nothing new. The idea of racing without drugs and humans who do not view rules as suggestions, while romantic and utopian is no more real than the tooth fairy. It never was and never will be. Where there is money, there will always be people who cheat.
Remember Tom Smith, the "Silent Tom" of Seabiscuit fame; a mysterious figure, the horse whisperer who turned a common claimer into a champion of historical significance and subject of a best-selling book and feature film? There is reason to believe that the reality was far removed from the memory.
In 1945, five years after Seabiscuit retired, Smith, training in New York for owner Elizabeth Arden and enjoying remarkable success, was, having been placed under scrutiny by the authorities, banned from racing for a year after a groom in his employ was observed spraying an ephedrine solution into horse's nostrils. This procedure was observed repeatedly, sometimes administered by Smith, sometimes by a groom and was usually followed by a strong performance. Ephedrine is a stimulant. Smith, caught red-handed, denied wrongdoing, returned to Arden's service after the suspension and promptly won the Kentucky Derby of 1947 with Jet Pilot. Perhaps Seabiscuit was the beneficiary of similar chemical stimulation, perhaps not. Certainly the legend and his trainer must be viewed in the light of well-grounded suspicion and the nonsense of legend put to rest.
Tales of shadowy figures, drugs and horses are indeed part of racing lore real and imagined. All too real was the Sublimaze scandal that shook the sport's underpinnings in the '70s, the era of race-fixing scandals in New York and elsewhere brought to light by the late Tony Ciulla, who was called the "Master Fixer" and dealt in the currency of drugs. Etorphine, known as "elephant juice," marred the '80s. Patrick Biancone, banned for a year after the discovery of a vile of cobra venom in his Keeneland barn, is not the first trainer suspected of using the illegal substance, for which there is no effective laboratory test.
While the debate over Lasix threatens to overtake and pass the point of surreal absurdity and people blanch at the mention of bicarbonate of soda, the real criminals in racing are setting new standards for drug-related cheating. It is true that the bad guys are usually one step in front of the regulators and frog juice, or dermorphin, said to surpass morphine in potency by a factor of 30 to 40, is the latest and perhaps the most exotic substance employed by those who would administer illegal drugs to enhance the performance of a racehorse limited by infirmity.
The first positive tests for this powerful analgesic produced by a South American tree frog but also produced artificially were reported in Louisiana and were soon followed by reports of positive laboratory tests in New Mexico and Oklahoma but, since dermorphin is offered for sale on several Internet sites, we may have seen no more than the tip of a sinister iceberg.
In January, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium voted to shift its research focus from therapeutic medication to drugs that pose an immediate threat to the integrity of racing. Though this shift of focus was not widely applauded, though it should be, it represents a significant and potentially beneficial movement. It is important to know what you don't know.
There is a clear difference between therapeutic and prophylactic medication and performance-enhancing substances that have no beneficial purpose just as there is between aspirin and cocaine.
True, the restrictions attached to many therapeutic medications currently in use should be reconsidered, threshold levels and withdrawal periods adjusted. Various corticosteroids and clenbuterol come immediately to mind. The debate over Lasix, which inhibits pulmonary hemorrhage and is widely viewed by horsemen of sterling repute as humane, is overblown and, as one prominent veterinarian pointed out recently, few trainers and vets currently practicing on racetracks have ever worked in an environment in which Lasix was not permitted.
There is a clear difference between therapeutic and prophylactic medication and performance-enhancing substances that have no beneficial purpose just as there is between aspirin and cocaine. Administration of a powerful, illegal opiate to an infirm horse goes beyond animal abuse and is criminal on many levels.
"There is no legitimate use for dermorphin in racing," Charles Gardiner, the executive director of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune after 10 horses that raced at Louisiana tracks tested positive for the substance. "This drug in horses is an abuse of the horse. This puts the horse's life in danger. It puts the jockey's life in danger. This is an attempt to cheat. This is bad stuff. This is doping.''
The trainers in Louisiana whose horses have tested positive for dermorphin were issued six-month suspensions. If Tom Smith served a year for using ephedrine, these people deserve a penalty more appropriate to a far-more egregious transgression. A lifetime ban would not be too severe.
Until regulators are capable of keeping pace with the cheaters and the punishment is sufficiently severe to create an imbalance in the risk-reward equation, there will be those who see the illegal edge preferable to honest effort and patience.
This cat and mouse game is not new. Nor is the end in sight.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.