TCO2 Violation or a ‘Natural High’?

by | 03.16.2011 | 2:19pm

Some interesting questions have been raised in trainer Doug O'Neill's lawsuit against the California Horse Racing Board in connection with a complaint against O'Neill after one of his horses, a then 4-year-old Mineshaft mare named Argenta, tested over the allowed limit for total carbon dioxide levels last August at Del Mar.

It was the fourth complaint against O'Neill (three in California and one in Illinois) for having a horse exceed the permitted TCO2 level, which can occur when horses are given alkalizing agents to help reduce lactic acid buildup and prevent fatigue in a race. That is a prohibited practice commonly called milkshaking, which originally began with a concoction of baking soda and water being tubed into a horse's stomach. There are other alkalizing agents available today that do not require tubing.

O'Neill and his attorneys have said the CHRB is depending on flawed science for its TCO2 testing program and wants the court to invalidate it. O'Neill also claims horses can have naturally elevated levels of TCO2 that take them above the 37.0 mmol/l threshold used in most racing states, including California.

Indeed, last Thursday, the day we reported on O'Neill's lawsuit against the CHRB, Kentucky Horse Racing Commission steward John Veitch told KHRC commissioners a horse that tested over the TCO2 limit at Turfway Park was found in subsequent quarantined testing to be one of those anomalies.

Here is the stewards ruling, absolving trainer James E. Mattingly of any responsibility for his horse Mona Zone testing above the TCO2 limit in Kentucky.

“After a formal hearing before the board of stewards Mr. Mattingly is relieved of his responsibility for the horse MONA ZONE testing for an overage of TCO2 at a level of 38.4 mmol/l due to the finding of fact that after being placed in quarantine Jan. 24-Jan. 27 during which time five blood samples were tested by University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine Racing Laborary, the official laboratory of the KHRC, it is the conclusion of the board of stewards that MONA ZONE has the potential to naturally produce a higher, than allowable, level of TCO2 as per the regulation set forth…No action will be taken by the board of stewards in this matter.”

TCO2 is a “physiologic measurement,” according to Scot Waterman, D.V.M., executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium in Lexington, Ky. “While a ‘normal' horse generally falls between 28.0-32.0, there are small numbers of outliers at either end of the bell curve. If a horse is believed by its connections to be one of the few naturally high animals, most states allow the animal to be placed into quarantine for a set period of time where the environment is completely controlled by the state. Repeated measurements are taken to determine whether the animal has a consistently higher than normal TCO2.”

I asked Waterman how often this occurs.

“It is a very rare occurrence,” he said. “I don't have any statistics to cite but there are not many horses that consistently exceed the normal range. The body always tries to maintain homeostasis. Since TCO2 is a reflection of acid/base balance and the pH of the blood is generally neutral it is unusual to have a normal animal be consistently more alkaline or more acidic. But, it can happen. That is a large part of the reason the threshold is set at 37.0 instead of 33.0. You account for the hour-to-hour variations in TCO2 and the vast majority of the outliers but it isn't 100%.”

Mona Zone, a 5-year-old daughter of Monashee Mountain, was making her sixth career start in a $7,500 maiden claiming race. It's possible, under Kentucky's policy of random TCO2 pre-race blood testing (all starters in graded stakes in Kentucky are tested), this was the first time Mona Zone had been screened for TCO2 levels.

That's not the case with Argenta, who was making her 16th career start in California last Aug. 25, the race in question, when she came in with a  TCO2 level of 39.4. It was her fifth start for O'Neill, who claimed her on behalf of clients from the barn of Gary Mandella on June 9, 2010.

Pre-race blood samples are taken and tested for TCO2 levels of all horses competing at Southern California tracks, where Argenta spent her entire career. So the CHRB should have access to Argenta's history of TCO2 levels for every one of her 22 career starts. The question is whether that baseline of information will be relevant and admissible in O'Neill's suit against the CHRB.

Click here to read O'Neill's complaint against the CHRB.

  • Columbo

    Not as rare as you think. Ask Rick Violette here in NY.

  • ratherrapid

    good post. there are so many difficult Qs with testing. Seems to me, if u want to outlaw something, the reg should also simply prohibit the exercise. O’Neill would be asked at his hearing:
    did you milkshake the horse? if yes–suspension, regardless of rest. If trainer found to lie, permanent revocation of license.
    Same deal with steroids. All the regs so far do is “test” whereas ever body builder that’s ever used them knows the steroid training effect lasts for 6 months which is up to 4 months after they test? See a horse these days inexplicably win a race after a long layoff–think steroids. These are the sorts of issues that to me, am unable to understand why the proposed model RCI rules fails to deal with.

  • Joe

    Put investigators in his barn 24/7, track all his horses, all the time. Or at minimum place surveillance cams in his barns, watch his horses and people 24/7. Follow all vans to and from his barns. Get all containers and syringes from his vet. Or simply get rid of him and his ilk once and for all. Training race horses is a privilege not a right.

  • #13…ty…

  • ps…#3…ty

  • incredulous

    If it was nearly anyone but O’Neill – good luck buddy.

  • Mike R

    If TCO2 levels are naturally occuring at above admissible levels why is it that certain trainers tend to have multiple violations and other trainers have none?

  • Shake King of Cali

    Okay one more obvious problem here why arent other trainers being busted too on a regular basis? There was a time when i thought EVERYONE milkshaked a horse before a race because that is what i observed first hand. LOL

    But seriously this is all so 1990 trust me far better things being used now just have a look at some of the Vet bills.

  • Mike R

    There is no way that EVERYONE milkshakes. That is why “trainer change” has gone to the top of the heap of handicapping angles.

  • Stillriledup

    I like what Joe (3) has to say. I concur.

  • bigdog

    milkshaking happens every day to some degree. the “better” trainers simply know “how much” can be given without detection. Just spend a day in your trainers barn and I’ll bet you see a box or two of baking soda there. Unless, your trainer is also a baker, there is no reason for that stuff to be there !

  • s/s

    O’Neill is a dirty trainer. He is grasping at straws with his defense. It is about time to get rid of this cheater and send him to Federal Prison.

  • equine paprazzi

    jeez, you guys want to hang these people. You know what cracks me up is how everyone pontificates about cheating and then they go ahead and use the “cheater’s” horses in P3’s and P4’s and P6’s. if you were serious you would boycott those horses, but no, you’ll go on using them because why not, you’re not crazy, why would you leave O’neil out of a P6? how many of you STOPPED using Mullins when he was knee deep in this? probably none of you. you handicapped your race and when you won with the “cheater’s horse” you took your money. stop with the holier than thou crap unless you actually boycott these people when betting. if you take the money how are you any better? for me i could give a rat’s ass. i have lost when the cheaters beat me and i have won when i used their horse. i don’t know which is which, i just keep playing.

  • s/s

    #13…. I myself don’t bet. I own. But since you mentioned Mullins perhaps he was right in what he said about gamblers. As far as O’Neill is concerned bet or don’t on his horses he is still dirty.

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