The Tree Frog Drug: Combating the Latest Racetrack Cocktail

by | 06.20.2012 | 8:00am

Dermorphin is a highly potent drug that only recently hit the pharmaceutical landscape of American racetracks – especially those in the southern regions of the country where Quarter horses race – but author and adventurist Peter Gorman has had first-hand knowledge of how powerful the substance is for nearly 20 years.

Gorman, an American who has spent much of his life exploring the South American Amazon forests, was introduced to dermorphin by Matses Indians during a trip to the Peruvian Amazon in the mid-1980s.

Called “sapo” by the tribesman, the dermorphin concoction is extracted from tree frogs found in the region. Gorman was invited to join the tribe on a hunt, and given a dose of the sapo by his guide, who rubbed a stick with the mustard-like substance on a freshly exposed piece of skin on his wrist about the size of a matchhead.

Writing in Omni magazine, Gorman said the sapo first made him nauseous, causing his heart to race and his head to pound. He lost consciousness for several hours, but after awakening felt almost super-human.

“My vision, my sense of smell, everything about me felt larger than life, and my body felt immensely strong,” he wrote. “During the next few days my feeling of strength didn't diminish: I could go whole days without being hungry or thirsty, and move through the jungle for hours without tiring. Every sense I possessed was heightened and in tune with the environment, as though the sapo put the rhythm of the jungle into my blood.”

For years the Matses tribe had been using sapo from tree frogs to heighten their senses, increase stamina and give them additional strength during long hunting trips.

Apparently it can have similar effect on horses.

Larcenous horse trainers or dishonest veterinarians do not have the opportunity to visit the Amazon to extract sapo, or dermorphin, from the rare frogs. They rely on a synthetic version of the drug, which many are now calling frog juice and is said to be up to 40 times more powerful than morphine.

But where and how do they find it?

“That's a good question,” said Petra Hartmann, director of the Drug Testing Services Laboratory at Industrial Laboratories in Wheat Ridge, Colo. “You can apparently purchase it over the Internet, which makes it a lot easier to get this kind of stuff. I've looked at a number of the human drug-user sites, and from what we've seen, some of it comes through China or Mexico. And a couple of people on these forums mentioned they were able to order it directly from research companies that failed to double-check whether the buyer has a valid business practice to purchase it.”

Industrial Labs made the testing breakthrough on synthetic dermorphin that has led to dozens of positive tests for the drug in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico. The first trainer to be named in the alleged abuse of the drug, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is Alvin Smith Jr., whose Dashin Forward tested positive for dermorphin after finishing second in the Laddie Futurity at Delta Downs on May 26.

Sources told the Paulick Report the winner of that same $225,337 race, Coltins Fast Dash, is among the 10 other Louisiana runners (seven Quarter horses and three Thoroughbreds) to test positive for dermorphin. Those cases are waiting on confirmatory split samples to come back positive before formal complaints are filed. Smith waived his right to have a split sample from Dashin Forward tested by a second lab.

It was just last year that the Association of Racing Commissioners International added dermorphin to its list of Class 1 drugs. In its Uniform Classification Guidelines, the RCI said this of substances in Class 1:

“Stimulant and depressant drugs that have the highest potential to affect performance and that have no generally accepted medical use in the racing horse. Many of these agents are Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) schedule II substances. These include the following drugs and their metabolites: Opiates, opium derivatives, synthetic opioids and psychoactive drugs, amphetamines and amphetamine-like drugs as well as related drugs, including but not limited to apomorphine, nikethamide, mazindol, pemoline, and pentylenetetrazol. Though not used as therapeutic agents, all DEA Schedule 1 agents are included in Class 1 because they are potent stimulant or depressant substances with psychotropic and often habituative actions.”

Suggested RCI penalties for a first offense is a minimum one-year suspension for the trainer and a $10,000 fine or 10% of the total purse, whichever is higher.

Smith had two previous Class 1 violations for the cardio-vascular stimulant Aramine in 1999, the Times-Picayune reported. He was suspended seven months then and fined $3,500. For his most recent Class 1 violation, which Smith has appealed, stewards suspended him six months, the maximum allowed under Louisiana rules. Stewards, according to the Times-Picayune, called the penalty “insufficient” and are referring the case to the Louisiana State Racing Commission.

Charles A. Gardiner III, executive director of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, said the outbreak of dermorphin positives “is not news that we like to hear, but the Louisiana State Racing Commission is on the cutting edge of detecting drugs that are used to cheat and the commission expects swift and clear action.”

The Louisiana positive tests, from samples taken between May 16 until early June, were called at the Louisiana State University testing laboratory under the direction of Steven Barker. The LSU lab had earlier been asked to confirm the presence of the drug in split samples taken from horses racing in Oklahoma. According to published reports, 15 Oklahoma-raced horses tested positive for dermorphin. Those samples, first tested at Industrial Labs, were the first known positives for the drug. The New York Times reported that six samples from horses racing in New Mexico tested positive for dermorphin. Those positives reportedly were called at a California lab. It has not been reported how many of those positive tests were from Quarter horses.

When dermorphin was added to its Class 1 list of drugs last July, the RCI said investigators had discovered vials of the substance at racetracks. Those vials were given to labs to help develop tests.

“We had been testing (for dermorphin) and I'm sure other labs had as well,” said Hartmann of Industrial Labs. “We knew about it for almost a year and have been trying to detect this stuff in live samples. Due to the diligence of one of our clients who kept asking us for this after hearing reports that something was being used, we went back to the drawing board and redesigned the testing. The molecule itself is larger than a lot of the standard, more routine drugs. That brought some analytical challenges with it.”

The testing method used by Industrial Labs was LC-MS-MS, or liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry. Dermorphin has now been detected or confirmed in blood and urine, Hartmann said.

“I'm very pleased with how well everything worked in this case,” Hartmann said. “It demonstrates the importance of communications from the backstretch to racing commissions and among the labs in sharing their methods. In this case everyone worked together really well. I could pick up the phone and call several labs and ask for help in our methods or double-checking samples. It was definitely the way things should work all the time.”

Hartmann admitted that isn't the way drug testing has always worked among chemists and testing labs.

“That is part of the nature of this business,” she said. “It is a competitive environment. Your business is obtained through competitive bidding, in what you have to offer to a jurisdiction. Your ability to get contracts often depends on how much better you are than your competition is.”

Hartmann said the competition among labs is not necessarily a bad thing.

“With all the talk about industry consolidation or consolidating labs, it is a huge advantage to have different labs employing different screening protocols,” she said. “That's an advantage, and it's important to realize that labs are as good as their jurisdiction or clients expect them to be. Anyone that accuses a lab of not being up to par should look at what the bid or the contract says is expected of them.”

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