When is a ‘milkshake’ not a milkshake?
How does a horse get an elevated carbon dioxide level without being administered a “milkshake,” a procedure that involves tubing a mixture of baking soda, water, and possibly other substances into a horse's stomach four to six hours before a race? That's the question many people are asking in the wake of a California Horse Racing Board hearing officer's report involving a TCO2 violation by Argenta, a filly from Doug O'Neill's barn that finished eighth in a race at Del Mar in August 2010.
The hearing officer was convinced after conducting a seven-day hearing that Argenta was not “milkshaked” and that O'Neill himself had done nothing intentionally that would have elevated the TCO2 level of the filly, whose pre-race test came in at 39.4 millimoles per liter, well above the 37.0 legal cutoff level.
Nevertheless, because of the absolute insurer rule that holds the trainer responsible for any medication violations (and there seemed to be no disputing the fact Argenta tested above the limit), the hearing officer recommended O'Neill be suspended for 45 days and fined $15,000. An additional 135-day suspension was stayed for the next 18 months, provided O'Neill has no further Class 1, 2, or 3 medication violations. CHRB members concurred with the recommendation. The suspension will start no sooner than July 1, though O'Neill still has the right to appeal through the courts.
The ruling came in the midst of the highpoint of O'Neill's career as a trainer, after victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with I'll Have Another. It will not affect his ability to participate in the upcoming Belmont Stakes on June 9.
This was the fourth time an O'Neill horse tested above the allowable TCO2 limits: one each in 2006 and 2008 in California and an Illinois violation in 2010, in addition to the 2010 Argenta case. I could find only one Thoroughbred trainer with as many as three TCO2 violations: Cole Norman, with two in Louisiana and one in California.
Milkshakes, or bicarbonate loading, is a procedure that began in Standardbred racing in the 1980s, then migrated to Thoroughbred tracks. Loading of bicarbonates neutralizes the buildup of lactic acid, which causes fatigue in the muscles. Its efficacy is believed to be highest after a minimum of 90 seconds of exercise, so the greatest effect in Thoroughbred racing is at distances of a mile or more.
Milkshakes are a prohibited practice on race day in all U.S. jurisdictions. Kentucky and Louisiana in the late 1990s were the last two states to ban the practice.
In California, TCO2 testing did not begin until 2004, when survey tests were conducted to gauge how widespread milkshaking had become. The results were quite shocking: of 82 horses tested during eight races at Del Mar, 19 of them, or nearly 25%, tested above the 37.0 threshold. (In Australia, TCO2 tests are considered positive if they are above 35.0.) Most horses normally test around 32.0-33.0.
Those initial high TCO2 tests in California were not prosecuted. Since then, the CHRB has only reported a handful of TCO2 violations, and three of them belong to O'Neill.
Why do O'Neill's horses test above the permitted level more than anyone else?
A racetrack practitioner who spoke to the Paulick Report on the condition of anonymity said some trainers and veterinarians “push the envelope,” not by administering traditional bicarbonate loading through a gastro-nasal tube but by giving “bullets,” a paste-like mix of bicarbonates and electrolytes delivered via a dose gun in the back of a horse's mouth four to five hours before a race. The concoction can contain an “energy mix” of amino acids, sugar or complex sugar.
The energy “bullet” elevates a horse's TCO2 but, if done properly, keeps it below the 37.0 threshold level. The administration is a prohibited practice, since it is done on race day.
The veterinarian did not accuse O'Neill, his staff or veterinarians of this practice, only raising it as a possibility for why any barn might have multiple violations.
“There's a fine line,” the veterinarian said. “You have to do your homework. Calculate how much lactic acid you are going to neutralize, what is the horse's weight, what kind of race and distance. The longer the race, the more molecules of lactic acid a horse will produce, the shorter the race, the less.”
Problems, or TCO2 violations, can occur when a horse metabolizes the alkalizing agents more slowly. “Every horse is different,” the veterinarian said. “Their muscle makeup, their activity level. There is no absolute formula that applies to every horse.”
Do some trainers simply add baking soda to a horse's feedtub?
“It's bitter tasting,” the veterinarian said. “Most horses will avoid it if you just add it to their feed. You can't make a horse take in bicarbonates, so you hydrate it into a paste and squirt it into the back of their throat with what looks like a caulk gun.”
Knowing there is the potential for an over-the-limit test, I asked the veterinarian why trainers would allow this procedure for their horses?
“It's a culture,” he said. “There is an old adage among cheaters: Push as close to the limit as you can without getting caught. Some of these trainers feel like it's their job to do that.”
For his part, Doug O'Neill has said no one in his barn knowingly has done anything to elevate the TCO2 level of any of his horses. How Argenta tested well above the limit may forever remain a mystery.