The horse is a complex creature; so complex that even to those looking to give him a chemical boost, he can remain a mystery.
Last week's meeting of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council focused on the most appropriate way to regulate the use of cobalt in racehorses, but most experts there agreed that science has determined excessive amounts of the mineral don't necessarily make horses run faster.
Cobalt has been in the news over the past year or so as regulators learned some horsemen were giving their charges massive doses of the mineral in hopes of replicating the blood-doping effects cobalt has in humans. The equine body doesn't always process things the same way ours do, though, and a study published in late 2014 by scientists at the University of California-Davis concluded that a single dose of injected cobalt chloride or cobalt gluconate had no impact on the red blood cells or EPO concentrations.
Dr. Rick Sams, a co-author of the study, said it's still unknown why the mineral behaves differently in horses, but based on initial fact-finding numbers, there's little doubt it's being supplemented to an extreme degree, even though it may not work.
It isn't, of course, the first time people have tried to adapt a human drug for nefarious use in horses without success.
“One of the peculiarities of the backside is that people don't stay quiet,” said Sams. “They talk about being able to get by with something and what produces an effect. There are not controlled studies, so sometimes they're incorrect, but the fad spreads.”
When regulators first became aware of dermorphin, they detected two different versions that were being used in horses: a copy of the substance extracted from the South American tree frog (hence the “frog juice” moniker), and a synthetically-modified version.
It turned out the version that hops around on tree frogs has a bonding structure that makes it dissolve almost immediately in biological fluids; a change is needed to hold it together long enough to have any impact on the horse's body. Hence, the synthetic version.
The trainers found guilty of using the identical frog juice copy received sanctions for the violation likely without the benefit of any change in their horses' performance.
In pre-frog juice days, Sams recalled that trainers were thought to be giving horses amphetamine for the purposes of enhancing performance. A study was eventually conducted by researchers early in Sams' career — the drug was administered to harness horses. Drivers reported that the horses behaved erratically and were so difficult to control, they couldn't have made it around a racetrack—not exactly the result a trainer might want in a race where maintaining a trot or pace is crucial.
Before blood testing became the standard means of catching rule-breakers, saliva testing was the go-to method. The most common substances detected in the 1930s when the tests were first introduced were morphine, heroin, and strychnine, though we now know cocaine was given to horses frequently.
Sams said there's never been any research to support the notion that heroin or cocaine make a horse run better. One 1993 study on cocaine remained fuzzy on the issue; it concluded that cocaine produces a small increase (7 percent) in maximum equine heart rate, but no change in work intensity. There was an uptick in time worked until exhaustion, but a decrease in the amount of work needed to reach a given level of lactic acid in blood (lactic acid is responsible for the feeling of muscle fatigue).
Although strychnine is known for having a mild stimulant effect at small doses in humans, it doesn't take much to accidentally kill a horse with it instead and it's unclear if it does indeed make a horse run faster.
For those waging the war against substance abuse in racehorse, the question is ultimately moot.
“In recent weeks I have heard a number of persons argue that a substance shouldn't be regulated unless there is proof that it affects performance,” Sams said. “However, those studies cannot be done in racing horses because the rules of racing do not permit it or alternatively they cannot be done in simulated races because the costs are prohibitively high to obtain enough measurements to detect the small differences that are the difference between winning and losing. Therefore, I believe that those questions regarding performance enhancement or performance altering are largely irrelevant.”
There's no way to know what prompts people to try a new substance, but it seems they do respect a good testing program: once regulators announce they're testing for something, they see the levels drop.
Last year's study on cobalt indicated that the average horse's baseline level of the mineral in blood serum is extremely low—1 part per billion. A survey of horses at the spring Keeneland meet saw numbers between .37 ppb and 14.25 ppb, but numbers as high as 800 to 1,200 ppb were detected at the Red Mile before Kentucky officials announced that they were testing for the substance. After the announcement, the levels dropped. The same thing happened in Indiana.
If it seems like drug testing is a chemical game of whack-a-mole, that's because it is. It's also a game that's as much about the mentality of rule breakers as it is the substances they use. The only way Sams sees that changing is if the veterinary business model shifted away from a reliance on dispensing medication and toward compensation for education and diagnosis.
“It does feel like a philosophical battle at times but is ultimately one that should be solved with education, transparency, and some changes in the business models,” he said. “Trainers, owners, regulators, veterinarians, and laboratory personnel all need a better understanding of the effects of drugs on horses in racing. If these goals were realized, we could still have horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering and we would still experience the excitement of the Triple Crown races. We might even have more racing fans if they believed that the horses were being treated more humanely.
“Am I being naïve? Probably, but I will keep at it.”
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