Irwin: Seeking an Edge Part of Sport Culture

by | 08.06.2013 | 7:20am
Track and field star Tyson Gay

Kentucky-bred Tyson Gay—the fastest human sprinter of all time behind only Usain Bolt—rocked the athletics world when it was revealed last month that he had tested positive for a banned substance.

Gay was not alone, as during this same time period Veronica Campbell Brown and Asafa Powell—two of the fastest and most accomplished international human sprinters of all time—also tested positive for substances on the World Anti-Doping Association's banned list.

Gay is an American and the other two are Jamaicans, so they represent the two most storied programs for sprinters in the world of modern track and field.

While the sources of these foreign substances remain under question, it seems entirely likely that the two Jamaicans went afoul of authorities for using a supplement and Gay was given something illegal by an anti-aging dispenser not unlike the source Major League Baseball's Alex Rodriguez used to obtain illegal substances that has put his career with the New York Yankees in jeopardy.

Although I am speculating because I have no proof or sworn testimony to rely on, I do believe that on a conscious level none of the human sprinters thought they were doing anything illegal.

Most likely they did not seek an illegal edge over their competition and did not ask medical or coaching advisors to provide them with any substances that might get them in trouble.

But subconsciously, I truly believe the overriding mentality in these instances is that the athletes involved feel the stuff they use somehow gives them an edge that is not strictly legal, but does not test positive. They make a separate peace with themselves in accepting a belief that the substances are alright because they have been supplied to them by sources they trust and rely on, which allows them some measure of comfort to distill a deeper belief that what they have taken is not “strictly” legal, but magically does not test positive.

Athletes have been doing this for a very, very long time. This is absolutely nothing new. It is totally ingrained in the culture.

In athletics, even though a guy like Gay is a national treasure that reflects the image of Americans throughout the athletic world, none of the stuff that he ingests into his magnificent body is ever blessed by authorities.

It seems entirely logical to me that before Gay is allowed to take any supplements or medications from any source, these substances should be approved by the governing body of track and field.

Had Gay, for example, shared with authorities his regimen of ingestibles or injectables from any snake oil salesman masquerading as a caring medical professional, he would be training for next week's World Championships in Russia instead of preparing a defense for his intransigencies.

Horse racing is not much different than athletics, except in track and field the foreign substances are taken by the athletes themselves and in horse racing the stuff is administered to the athletes by their coaches.

In horse racing, the coaches must adhere to the “trainer responsibility rule,” which makes them responsible for keeping a horse's system and body free of substances deemed to be illegal based on rules established by each racing jurisdiction.

Many horse trainers, just like human sprinters, are always looking for an edge. Based on evidence, lore and rumor, everything from Viagra to morphine and arsenic have been tried in recent years in order to find something that will provide an edge to racehorses.

By now, everybody should know the “gold standard” for trainers that are hell-bent on cheating. This is comprised of a) pain management (desensitizers), b) increasing muscle mass (steroids and Clenbuterol), c) increasing the flow of oxygen to the respiratory system (blood doping) and d) buffering lactic acid (milk-shaking).

Lower on the food chain than frog juice, steroids, EPO-like agents and lactic acid neutralizers comes an sub-class of “supplements” that promise any number of things. Usually manufacturers of the products claim they are “all natural.”

To be sure, some of the products are totally legitimate. Some of these have been developed by scientists and veterinarians with the most honorable intentions and are used by many of the top racing stables in the world.

Others, however, make unsubstantiated claims and profess to aid or cure a variety of equine deficiencies such as bleeding. Many claim their elixirs dramatically improve digestion, improve temperament, eliminate tying-up syndrome, blah blah blah, etc.

It is no secret that since the forced elimination of steroids from the regimen of racehorses that trainers have been looking for legal and natural replacements for the real stuff. Clenbuterol is the drug of choice because of its steroidal impact. Track and field long recognized this and did so well in advance of the horseracing world.

Most recently California-based trainer Carla Gaines was suspended when a horse under her care tested positive for a higher level of testosterone than normal. Ms. Gaines identified the source of the problem as a supplement. Through her attorney Darrel Vienna, she appealed by asking for a stay, which was not granted last week.

The supplement used by Ms. Gaines basically mirrors the human products suspected of being used by the human sprinters, as it uses “all natural precursor hormone stimulants” to jump start a metabolic change that aids in producing more bulk for racehorses and sprinters.

As is the case with the sprinters, racehorse trainers use products—some recommended by medical professionals such as veterinarians—that they consciously trust but subconsciously hope will provide magical therapy usually only gained through illegal methods.

Ms. Gaines was cited because of the trainer responsibility rule. She may very well be a victim of Tyson Gay and the Jamaicans' way of thinking.

The simple answer to ending this charade is for the sprinters and horse trainers only to use legitimate products that have been approved by a recognized organization. If manufacturers have confidence in the efficacy of their products, they should pay a fee to an authorized group that can oversee testing and analysis of the products.

By taking these steps, track and horse racing can end the practice of administering questionable substances into the body of a performing athlete.

Several years ago, I wrote an Op-Ed piece in which I recommended having all of the ingestibles and injectibles under the control of an on-track pharmacy that would sell the stuff to vets, who in turn would use them for their equine patients. Anything testing positive that was not originally bought from the pharmacy would get the veterinarian in a heap of trouble. This would most certainly eliminate the administration of questionable products into the system and bodies of our racehorses.

Barry Irwin is founder and chief executive officer of Team Valor International

  • SusanKayne

    Barry, Well said. Who among vets and trainers — has enough integrity to implement such a change? Sadly, I cannot think of a single one….

    • John McEvoy

      Are you saying they are all crooked? Back it up with facts.

      • Barry Irwin

        John, when trainers balk, cry and scream about “out of competition” testing of their stock, why do you think they adopt this position and lobby so hard for it not to be allowed?

    • Lexington 3

      Keep thinking.

  • 14151617

    I truly believe the overriding mentality in these instances is that the athletes involved feel the stuff they use somehow gives them an edge that is not strictly legal, but does not test positive.And that is the the entire TRUTH of the whole thing.Does not test positvie.

    • Mimi Hunter

      It doesn’t test positive because whatever substance being used isn’t being tested for. Each drug is a specific test. If it can be done on a mass spectrometer, the profile of each drug has to be put in separately. What the cheaters are looking for isn’t a drug that will test negative – it’s a drug that works miracles but isn’t illegal, yet. There is a difference. Even if it is only in the mind – everyone wants to win or there would be no competition to begin with.

      • 14151617

        I understand completely just used fewer words to express my thoughts.
        But are correct.

        • Mimi Hunter

          Good. I feel it is the ‘difference’ that is important. There is a whole world between trying to win and cheating to win.

          • Barry Irwin

            This problem can be solved by police work, but few are interested in catching the cheaters.

          • Mimi Hunter

            It would have to be a real high profile case with lots of bells and whistles. Probably would be federal with interstate trafficking. Would probably take several years to figure it out, and then with plea bargains and all, we end up watching the bad guys get a mild slap on the wrist and everything just fades away until the next time. No surprise that few are interested in catching the cheaters.

  • Hooly

    Thank you Barry for highlighting the fact that some trainers are just trying to help their horses and are not evil. No one wants horses to bleed and as medicinal options are taken away we will look to homeopathic remedies, vitamins, minerals, etc. Compounded remedies may be tainted getting trainers in trouble. Tying up in horses can be mysterious and is very painful to the horse. After changing feed, management, etc. there are very effective medicinal options that trainers may be scared to use since withdrawl times are often variable from horse to horse and are unreliable. Thresholds are so low, they are often set days after any clinical effect of the drug. So……horses suffer. I say let trainers help their horses as long as the levels aren’t performance enhancing on race day and focus on steroids use, blocking pain, blood doping etc.

  • jetto

    The most sensible article I’ve read on the subject. Kudos!

  • circusticket

    I’m all in favor of a solution but I can’t see how your idea would work. Prescription drugs are already controlled by the vets and they should already be in a heap of trouble for abuses. Non-prescription items could still be obtained outside your system, without the vets’ knowledge. I mean, are you going to control horse feed as well? Stuff will still come into the barns.

    • betterthannothing

      That is why 24/7 surveillance and tracking is needed to protect horses in their stalls and everywhere they go.

      • circusticket

        Nice idea but a cost/benefit analysis would need to be done to see if it’s more expensive/less effective than increased and random testing on and off the track. Also, in this country, I’d prefer to think we’re innocent until proven guilty so surveillance (touchy subject right now) on everyone seems extreme. It would ruin the sport for the people involved, in my opinion.

        • betterthannothing

          I believe that it would not only be far more humane to protect horses (and smart to protect riders, horse buyers, fans, breeders and horseplayers) against abuse and cheating with top security, tracking and surveillance technology, it would be an excellent investment because the direct and indirect costs of abuse and cheating to racing are enormous and with no end in sight.

          Everyone and everything are being tracked now. Most of it is good.

          Top security technology would ruin it for the bad guys.

    • Barry Irwin

      So what’s your solution?

  • slw

    Relating cheating to any other sport is typical of horse racing. No other sport has pari Mutual bettig and doping horses means you are cheating people who wager on the horses. This is unconscionable, and besides that the p[enalties handed out by horse racing authorities are in no way match the crime committed. Other sports take cheating seriously and punish the guilty instead of saying if you do it again we will make you take a short vacation.

    • betterthannothing

      “doping horses means you are cheating people who wager on the horses. This is unconscionable,”

      Cry me a river! Gamblers choose to gamble like jockeys choose to ride.

      Horses have no choice about being drugged to fool everyone, loaded in the gates and whipped down to the wire. What is done to horses to maximize financial gains endangers animals and humans and contributes to about three dead horses per 1,000 starts. That is unconscionable.

  • Tinky

    Excellent post, Barry. My only quibble is that there are also other simple steps that can be taken in order to radically reduce the amount and frequency of cheating. Namely:

    1) widespread and regular use of out of competition testing

    2) when a clear doping violation is discovered, turn the case over to the FBI

    3) freeze samples and store them indefinitely, while making it crystal clear to both owners and trainers that when new tests are developed, such samples will be re-tested, and positives will be dealt with severely.

  • takethat

    Barry forgot to mention the case of Jamaican sprinter Steve Mullings.
    Take a look at what he was banned for taking.

    Sport’s highest appeals court has upheld the lifetime doping ban for Jamaican sprinter and former world relay champion Steve Mullings.

    The Court of Arbitration for Sport says it dismissed the 30-year-old runner’s appeal of the ban imposed by the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission in November 2011 after his second drug offense.

    Mullings tested positive for furosemide, a banned diuretic and masking agent, at the national trials leading to the 2011 world championships. Mullings had served a two-year ban after testing positive for methyltestosterone in 2004.

    • Don Reed

      Give Barry his due.

      Otherwise, step into the breach & become the prior author of the above ice-breaking article, which was forged without your prior encouragement, much less the encouragement.

      (These are all big words that you will never see on Twitter, the poisoned & corruptly corporate & profitable well of the English language.)

      • Jay Stone

        Totally agree that anonymous posts are worthless. If you don’t have the guts to put your name to what you post then it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

        • Don Reed

          Thanks. The only anonymity that should exist in this context should be the identity of the horses’ post-race testing bottles sent to the labs.

  • FPope

    No sport’s organization does it better than the PGA Tour, where 300 individuals say “I would rather lose than cheat”. Several times a year we witness a PGA Tour pro call a penalty on themselves, which is costly individually, but it maintains the integrity of the PGA Tour with their sponsors and fans.

    All other sports’ organizations try to catch cheaters. There’s a difference between not cheating and not getting caught.

    Would racing, with regulated gambling, benefit from races that have the absolute integrity of the PGA Tour? It seems to work in Hong Kong,

    Racehorse owners could agree to not cheat, but that would require getting like-minded owners together and setting up races with integrity, like Hong Kong. That’s a lot of work.

    • Tinky

      “No sport’s organization does it better than the PGA Tour…”

      Really Fred? Do you somehow imagine that Tiger was always clean, or that all PGA pros would “rather lose than cheat”?

      If so, all that I can say is “Wow!”.

      With respect to the Hong Kong model, which is demonstrably superior to the U.S. model as it pertains to preventing cheating, there is ZERO chance that such a model will ever be adopted here, and for multiple reasons.

      • FPope

        I don’t think Tiger cheated at golf in PGA Tour tournaments. Whether he cheated in his private life is another matter, but if he had continued to harm the image of the Tour, the PGA Tour commissioner has the authority to remove him from the Tour.

        I’m not aware of any of the 300 PGA Tour players cheating in a tournament. If one broke a rule or messed up a score card, it was disclosed and corrected. to my knowledge the Tour has absolute integrity.

        As for the 3,000 members of the PGA, that’s a different association. It’s a lot harder to control 3,000 members than 300 who are like-minded.

        It’s a lot harder, and maybe impossible, to control 50,000 racehorses, but a couple thousand could be controlled and managed if their owners were like-minded.

        • Tinky

          “I don’t think Tiger cheated at golf in PGA Tour tournaments. Whether he cheated in his private life is another matter…”

          I find that distinction to be rather odd, Fred. I’m referring to PEDs, and how using them in one’s private life is somehow separate from cheating in tournaments is a mystery to me. If a horse is doped on private property, is it somehow less culpable than if the substance is administered at a racetrack?

          With regard to carefully controlling a couple of thousand horses in the U.S., there are numerous problems. First, like Lasix, you would be asking owners to race clean horses against those that are not being held to as a high a standard. There is also no chance that the U.S. will adopt the strict Honk Kong standards that, among other things, would eliminate all private vets.

    • John McEvoy

      Are the golfers tested for drugs?

  • HogHater

    Stopped watching Track & Field events after Marion Jones admitted to being a juicer. Followed her during her prep and collegiate career, went to a few of her basketball games and track meets.
    To the best of my knowledge, she never failed a drug test.

    • Barry Irwin

      I share your disappointment from exactly the same experience. I must admit that I, too, was shattered. But the good fight is still worth the battle for me.

  • Vintagetb

    Excellent post Barry. After reading “The Secret Race” the key seems to be out of competition testing. The issue is who is going to pay for it.

    • Hooly

      I agree. I don’t think it would cost much because just knowing testing is being randomly performed will change behavior. I don’t think you have to test every horse.

  • Roisin

    The focus in athletic competition used to be to find something to boost performance. Now it seems to be to find something that will boost performance but can’t be detected. What ever happened to relying on natural ability. Anything else is a form of cheating. Horses would rely on their ability were it not for the human traits of greed and ego.

    • Barry Irwin

      You hit the nail on the head.

    • nu-fan

      I also wonder how many owners and trainers are borderline on this issue? Perhaps, this is true in other sports as well. Might there be some who cross the line because their thinking–and, it may be true–that if they don’t go along with what others are getting away with, that they have little or no chance of winning? There needs to be a level playing field with firm rules and much more severe consequences. The others? Yes, greed and ego.

  • betterthannothing

    The horse trade has always been shady to begin with. This is not about racing, this is about them, the fat cats, the cushy jobs, the consulting payola, power and control, the perks, the insider clubs where money, fame and gravitas are valued above honor. When ugly becomes routine and lucrative, it becomes justified, even admirable and worthy of praise and recognition.

    Racing could have chosen to prioritize transparency, safety and integrity. Racing could have mandated that vet records be transparent from birth. Racing could have placed all horses under surveillance and tracking 24/7 and taken other anti-abuse and safety measures so about 3 out of 1,000 starters are no longer killed in action. Racing could have chosen to hire the USADA to purge cheaters and prevent abuse and cheating. Racing could have consolidated 38 sets of rules and prevented conflicts of interest among locals on both sides of “the law” into one set of strong uniform rules and national oversight.

    But racing does not want to share or give its power away and reduce its size regardless of how low it has to go.

    “I recommended having all of the ingestibles and injectibles under the control of an on-track pharmacy that would sell the stuff to vets, who in turn would use them for their equine patients.”

    Substance control and reduction + transparency of equine medical records + 24/7 surveillance and tracking would be a hell of a start against abuse and cheating and for quality racing!

    • johnnyknj

      Amen. Baseball, for reasons of enlightened self-interest, has obviously taken PEDs seriously and is invoking vigorous controls and real punishments. Likewise the NFL with the issue of player safety. In racing, with no governing structure save a collection of competing fiefdoms, the feeble attempts at dealing with its problems pale in comparison.
      And the irony is that it is the one sport where gambling is the only reason it exists. In a rational world you would think it would be the most concerned with cheating. Seems to be rapidly writing its own epitaph.

  • Don Reed

    Just added up the number and names of baseball players banned for drugs in the past 15-20 years.

    They would make an unbeatable Tour De France team.

    Hell, they could beat the horses in any Breeders’ Cup race you’d care to name.

  • Sal Carcia

    Campbell Brown was suspended for using the banned substance, Lasix. Lasix is consider to be a PED by the World Anti-Doping Association. I am not sure horseracing agrees the world organization.

    Also, have we not estabished here that steroids are still allowed in the U.S. for out-of-competition training?

    • Hoops and Horses

      The fact Lasix is a banned substance in Track and Field only strengthens my long-held view that there needs to be a five-year phase-out of Lasix in Horse Racing, starting with the two year olds and the very top level stakes (Triple Crown and all the major three year old stakes leading up to those races, Breeders’ Cup and races like the Arlington Million, Travers, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Woodward, Whitney, Jockey Club Gold Cup and so forth) and slowly working down to the rest of the horses. Doing that would go a long way towards cleaning up the sport.

      • Tinky

        For the record (and for the umpteenth time), Lasix is classified as performance enhancing by EVERY major sporting body in the world, as well as by the Mayo Clinic, etc.

        • nu-fan

          Tinky: However, I read H and H’s comment as it “…only strengthens…” rather than “Track and Field only….” Could that make a difference? I may overuse commas but I think it helps in readability.

      • nu-fan

        I’ve always thought a gradual pull-out makes more sense. It gives everyone a plan, going forward, and not as disruptive to current operations. And, thus, more people will be willing to go along (some reluctantly) and comply with changes. It also gives more opportunity for tweaking, if necessary, to small changes.

        • Barry Irwin

          I agree based on experience that a gradual pull out usually makes the most sense. I can supply witnesses to attest to this fact.

          • Hoops and Horses

            Exactly on a gradual pull-out. We did not get into this mess overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight either.

          • kyle

            Really? When the moment is pregnant with possibility always thought it better not to dilly dally.

          • betterthannothing

            It would have to be a gradual withdrawal but a firm one to avoid what is happening with lasix, two year olds and the BC.

            A gradual approach would allow better management of more horses being retired because they can’t run without meds and can’t be used for breeding purposes.

          • nu-fan

            betterthannothing: So true. It would have to be firm. No back-peddling. And, I think we know that there will be those who will fight this each and every step of the way. Can’t allow them to win this. Having the withdrawal gradual allows them to work their operation into the new system.

    • Barry Irwin

      Sal, VCB was speculated to have tested positive for Lasix, but it turned out to be just that–a rumor. Check it out.

      • Sal Carcia

        Barry, I found it. I commend you for the fairness of your reporting. For a horseplayer, it is wierd seeing the original headlines saying an athlete is suspended for using Lasix.

  • Richard C

    Adult humans – who are athletes – willingly make the choice to fill up a syringe and/or slam pills down their mouths to gain “an edge”. The equine athlete has no say in the matter.

  • Hooly

    Interesting topic and just goes to show there is a huge gray area for trainers. Many things are done to gain an edge that are just good horsemanship. Good feed, vitamins, joint supplements, etc. Some uninformed people have reacted negatively to horses being pre raced with adequan. that is just raw material for healthy joint fluid which horses need ro cushion their joints. What if you feed a horse an amino acid supplement to give them the ingredients to build muscle? Is that a bad thing? So where is the line? Of course I would think feeding precursors that increase testosterone levels would sound foolish since they test testosterone levels.

  • reinsman

    One related idea, instead of just suspending the trainers, why don’t they suspend the horse from participating in races as well? Right now the owners are enticed to do what they can to win, if the trainer gets a bad test then the assistant just steps up to the plate an they don’t miss a beat. Well if a trainer gets a bad test and the horse is in “jail” for 90 days, that will keep owners from taking their horses to trainers that are less than ethical.

    • Indulto

      I wonder how many “ethical” owners are being bamboozled by “unethical” trainers.

      I know nothing about golf, so maybe this is a stupid question, but is it true that no independent score-keeping is performed if only to catch “honest” mistakes?

      • reinsman

        Good point on the “bamboozled”, but if they were an ethical owner and their trainer got a bad test with their horse and they couldn’t run them for 3 months, it might make them either work out some type of contractual penalty to recover the time away from the trainer or be more careful in the trainers they select.

        • nu-fan

          reinsman: And, going forward, these owners may be more inclined to make certain of whom they hire to train their horses. This might run the “bad” trainers out of business (or, at least, get them to straighten out) and, perhaps, the trainers that do behave ethically will finally get the break and recognition that they deserve.

    • Sal Carcia

      The horses in the Moulton Paddock yard in U.K., that were found positive for steroids, were suspended for six months. These were the Godolphin horses owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai.

  • oldbay

    Where does other practices such as Shock Wave “THERAPY” fall in to ? Are they ok because it isn’t a drug? Seems it is used by a lot of “drug free” outfits quite often. To me worse or just as bad as some drugs being used.

    • betterthannothing

      I agree with you! The use of SWT to race injured horses is more or less regulated but tough to enforce without tracking and surveillance, along with other non-chemical methods used to scare horses into running faster including the use of whips and electrical shocks brutal enough to leave small burn marks. This is why I strongly believe in 24/7 surveillance and tracking of horses a few weeks before competition to prevent chemical abuse and doping and a few days before competition to prevent non-chemical abuse.

  • sunny

    I agree that seeking the edge is a part of human nature, but you have become an apologist for those blindly accepting drug help. Where and when will responsbility appear? Yes, centralization is the best way to regulate drugs in sports, but the real question is, what drugs will be allowed. By that simple logic, that all we need is centralization, it does nothing to address the problem of overuse of drugs in horse racing I expected more of you Mr. Irwin.

    • Barry Irwin

      I think you missed the point if you think that I am an apologist. Sorry I disappointed you.

  • Stanley inman

    Dobelieve any real change will co
    E to a sport that is not honest with itself
    Doesn’t thT best e plain all the never ending discussion of n’t

    • Barry Irwin

      If I thought otherwise I would find something else to do. Good will win out over evil.

  • cheri

    Bravo, Barry Irwin, Bravo! Excellent post. Thank you.

  • Don Reed

    “Several years ago…I recommended having all of the ingestibles and injectibles under the control of an on-track pharmacy that would sell the stuff to vets, who in turn would use them for their equine patients. Anything testing positive that was not originally bought from the pharmacy would get the veterinarian in a heap of trouble.”

    This was the best idea in horse racing bar none that has been ignored, and it now exists as the most damning evidence that the American racing authorities could not care less that the cheating is going on.

  • missedgehead

    Great job, Barry.

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