Some Thoroughbred trainers and veterinarians are giving new meaning to the term “happy hour.” This isn't the typical late-afternoon or early evening sessions when drinks are discounted at local watering holes but the time, usually two or three hours before a horse race, when an injection (normally 60 cc's) or oral dose of alcohol—often vodka—may be administered to a Thoroughbred to calm him down.
This alleged practice, which is prohibited as a Class 2 violation in the classifications of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, made headlines a couple of years ago when a racetrack veterinarian in Nebraska was charged in a criminal case with injecting alcohol in horses with the purpose of affecting the outcome of a race. Those charges were eventually dropped when witnesses couldn't be located for the trial.
Things got quiet on the alcohol in horses front until last fall, when three trainers at Turf Paradise had horses test positive for ethyl glucuronide, a metabolite of ethanol. Ethanol is the alcohol in beer, wine and hard liquor.
One of the horsemen was Keith Bennett, a former leading trainer at the Phoenix, Ariz., track, who is currently second in the standings with 64 wins from 198 starts, a healthy win percentage of 32%. A second is Justin Evans, who is third in the current standings with 37 wins from 113 starts, a 33% win percentage. The third is E. Mark Welch, with nine wins in 82, an 11% win percentage.
Evans had three horses test positive for ethyl glucuronide positives in a 12-day period between Oct. 31-Nov. 11, 2008. The chief veterinarian for the Arizona Department of Racing ordered tests for the substance in late October 2008. A search of Evans' barn uncovered six or seven 7.5-liter bottles of vodka in a file cabinet. Evans said in a hearing that he used the vodka as an “old trainer's remedy,” soaking a pad in the alcohol and using under leg wraps on all of his horses.
The testing was conducted by Industrial Laboratories. Tests for ethyl glucuronide had only been developed a few years earlier by the University of Pennsylvania and had not been widely available until recently, an employee of Industrial Laboratories told the Arizona Department of Racing.
As a result of the multiple positives, stewards ruled that Evans should be suspended a total of 18 months. He was also fined $3,150 and the owners were stripped of purse winnings. Evans appealed, and an administrative law judge reduced the suspension to 120 days. Click here to read the adminstrative judge's ruling.
According to sources, Turf Paradise officials exercised their right to exclude trainer Evans from the premises, though he was told he could apply for stall space in the future. He is currently stabled at Lone Star Park in Texas, where he won with one of his first four starters of the recently opened meeting, with two third-place finishes.
Another trainer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Paulick Report alcohol is also being used in connection with so-called milkshakes, which contain baking soda and electrolytes and are designed to reduce the lactic acid buildup that causes fatigue. The concoction is mixed together as a paste, the trainer said, and can be administered through a dose syringe, though it is more effective when given through a tube into the horse's stomach.
“You're getting them carbohydrates at the top of the lane where some horses are running out of gas,” the trainer said. “I tried it, and believe me, it works. But I quit doing it because I couldn't afford to get caught.”
Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said he is skeptical about the effectiveness of alcohol in milkshakes. It's his understanding the substance is given to calm horses, not to increase carbohydrates. But he said the use of alcohol in horses has “always been in the rumor mill,” and is something the RMTC takes very seriously. The organization funded a study several years ago to develop the most effective detection methods for ethanol using blood and urine tests and even experimenting with a breathalyzer. “It's easier to detect when given orally (than intravenously),” Waterman said. “The absorption is slower.”
Turf Paradise steward Ismael Trejo said backstretch security has been employed as an adjunct to testing in hopes of acting as a deterrent to trainer who might otherwise consider giving alcohol or other banned substances to their horses. “We put state investigators on trainers' barns and have had investigators shadow private veterinary practitioners,” he said. “Maybe we won't catch them, but we hope we can stop them. The fear of getting caught can be the best deterrent.”
“We do catch cheaters,” said Eugene Joyce, general manager of Turf Paradise. “It might be painful to read the headlines, but we do catch them. We want trainers and $2 bettors to have confidence in the game and to make people believe it's being contested on a level playing field.”
There are concerns in Arizona and other racing jurisdictions that budget cuts by state government will lead to fewer post-race tests and reduced personnel for backstretch security and investigations. And security is a key to deterrence, said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board.
“Our security has been specifically alerted to watch for this type of thing (administration of alcohol),” he said. “Investigators know to watch for it, and this is one of the reasons we are adamant about our 'water only' rules on raceday. If it's not water, the investigators can tell the difference.”
Arthur said some “old-time trainers” will say they used to dose horses with alcohol “somewhere in the neighborhood of four ounces. It is something we are concerned with, something we watch for.”
The CHRB regularly confiscates and tests syringes used by veterinarians to ensure raceday injections are Lasix only, Arthur said. “When we confiscate one syringe, everyone on the racetrack knows about it an hour later,” the former racetrack practitioner and surgeon said. “If somebody wants to bend the rules, I don't want them to be comfortable doing it. That's why we do barn inspections, vet vehicle inspections, to make people say, 'Hey, this isn't worth it.'
“We have no problem prosecuting people we catch, but the goal of our program is to stop people from anything illegally.”
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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