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.

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