Series Reveals Reality of Drug Wars in Racing
Congratulations are in order to the Thoroughbred Daily News and contributing writers Ryan Goldberg, Bill Finley, and Lucas Marquardt for the six-part series on drugs in horse racing that just concluded. If you haven’t read the entire series, do yourself a favor and visit the TDN’s website and catch up on this comprehensive, eye-opening volume of information.
Horse racing is not unique in having to fight drug wars.
Other sports in recent decades have been plagued with bad publicity over the use of performance-enhancing substances by individuals who, for whatever reason, feel they have to get an edge.
Track and field had its Ben Johnson and Marion Jones scandals spanning 20 years from 1988 to 2008, with many other Olympic athletes brought down by enhancements in drug testing or investigations into cheating. That sport appears to be cleaner today than it has been in decades.
The Tour de France, which American Lance Armstrong dominated for an unprecedented seven years, was saturated with stories of mysterious sudden deaths of otherwise healthy young men, team doctors with pharmacological degrees and sketchy backgrounds, and allegations of widespread doping. That sport reached such depths of dishonesty that the governing body couldn’t find clean riders to give the vacated titles to once Armstrong’s seemingly impenetrable defenses were disarmed last year.
Then there’s Major League Baseball, where a century of tradition was destroyed by a decade of deceit. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriquez all injected excitement into the game with their home run prowess, but it turns out their performances all were enhanced through modern science. That scandal, despite the best efforts of Commissioner Bud Selig, is still playing out, as a number of players – including Rodriguez again – currently are under investigation for cheating.
Horse racing, it seems, has always been accused of having an underbelly of unseemly conduct when it comes to drugs. Yet in some ways it has been ahead of the curve in at least giving the impression that the sport is being policed properly.
The TDN series – along with previous reporting by Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich in the New York Times – peeled off several layers of that onion. Some major racing states are relying on antiquated testing equipment and others are not devoting enough resources to standard post-race drug screening. Enhanced security procedures, out-of-competition testing, and drug research are not even in the vocabulary of most state racing commissions or the labs with which they do business.
Racing has its own version of the steroids-fueled home run race or the blood-doping tainted competitions in Olympic sports and cycling. Perhaps several.
The milkshaking era, which ran from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, has finally been reined in – for the most part – through TCO2 testing that measures the amount of total carbon dioxide in blood. We’ll never know how many Kentucky Derby winners or Grade 1 winners were milkshaked during that period. Though illegal in most states – Kentucky and Louisiana were the last two jurisdictions to ban them, in 1999 – testing didn’t begin until around 2005, years after the Standardbred industry had begun testing on this type of cheating. A cynic might say the playing field was level during those years if everyone was cheating – which would put horse racing on par with cycling.
Equally perplexing was the longstanding permitted use of anabolic steroids until 2008, when trainer Rick Dutrow did the sport a favor by spilling the beans about the steroid regimen he followed for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. That drug was banned after a Congressional hearing into the matter.
The most recent scandal involved dermorphin, an insidious peptide painkiller originally derived from Amazon tree frogs but produced by dubious compounding pharmacies that operate outside of regulatory agencies. While mostly confined to Quarter horse racing, the so-called frog juice migrated to Thoroughbred tracks, just as other illegal, performance- enhancing substances have done in recent decades.
Horse racing can ill-afford many more of these scandals.
The TDN series didn’t offer a single solution to our sport’s problems, but outlining the challenges and focusing on areas of progress should give us a better idea of a path forward.
If you haven’t done so already, put it on your summer reading list.