By Kevin Blake
The issue of drugs in sport has never been bigger than it is now. There have been so many performance-enhancing drug scandals in recent years that it has bred a culture of scepticism of sporting success amongst the public. Brilliant performances are immediately questioned as being too good to be true, with the trainers/coaches that oversee the success of athletes often coming under as much suspicion as the athletes themselves.
Horse racing has not escaped such scrutiny, with both legal and illegal drugs being a constant subject of controversy and debate. Around the major racing nations of the world there have been steroid scandals and cobalt controversies, not to mention ongoing entrenched debates about what the medication rules should allow on a day-to-day basis. This, combined with the omnipresence of drug scandals in the wider world of sport, has led many to have a heightened scepticism about just how level the playing field is in the high-stakes world of horse racing.
The threats presented by the well-known and long-established illegal drugs to the integrity of sport are concerning enough, but the biggest fear with performance-enhancing drugs in sport is that of the unknown, and this is no different in horse racing. The standard of drug testing across the major racing nations is generally considered high, but no matter how high the standard of testing, the testers have to know what they are looking for if they are to find it.
So-called designer drugs, substances that have the very similar performance-enhancing effects as well-known illegal drugs, but have had slight changes made to their molecular structure to evade the testers, have been an area of major concern in human sports for many years. With the stakes being so high in horse racing, it would be a brave person that suggested designer drugs could not be a factor in the Sport of Kings.
Given that there have been well-publicised scandals in horse racing with exotic and obscure substances such as snake venom and ‘frog juice,’ there clearly are individuals out there that are willing to go to great lengths in an effort to find a chemical edge in horse racing. While this is a worrying thought for anyone that cares about a level playing field and horse welfare, there are other realities to consider that may ease some of the more dramatic fears.
First and foremost, if effective designer drugs or other performance enhancers that the testers are not aware of do indeed exist in horse racing, the number of individuals that might have access to such advanced illegal drugs, not to mention the financial clout to purchase them and the expertise to administer them correctly, must be very small. Of the small number that have such resources, how many of them would be willing to risk their reputation, livelihood and the welfare of their horses by allowing such drugs to be administered to horses in their care?
Not only that, bear in mind that anyone that chooses to cheat in such a way will have to trust others along the supply chain with the knowledge that they are cheating, information that could be used to ruin them in the event of a falling out or the other person getting caught. We can only speculate, but the number of people willing to take such risks is surely tiny in the context of the overall population of horsemen and women that play the game with a straight bat.
Mind, for all the fears that come with talk of designer drugs and previously unknown performance enhancers that cannot yet be tested for, there is evidence to suggest that the greatest defence that horse racing has against the threat of chemical corruption does not lie in the hands of those entrusted to catch the cheats, but in the genetics of the Thoroughbred horse.
Think about it. The Thoroughbred racehorse is an incredibly specialised and highly developed breed of animal. No other animal on the planet has been so intensively and selectively bred and trained to excel at one task for such a long period of time. It has been over 300 years since the life of the Darley Arabian, the foundation stallion born in Syria from whom 95% of Thoroughbreds are descended. Since then, the Thoroughbred racehorse has been selectively bred purely based on racing ability for dozens of generations. Indeed, no fewer than 25 generations of sires separate the Darley Arabian and the great Frankel.
There must be a possibility that such a prolonged period of highly selective breeding may well have already achieved what many performance-enhancing drugs seek to achieve in terms of increasing peak performance in humans? Could this be the reason that despite the human race having made quantum leaps forward in terms of science, nutrition, training methods and– dare I say–the field of performance enhancing drugs, record times for stakes races around the world have been largely static for many decades? Have centuries of selective breeding made the Thoroughbred so finely balanced that it has reached the ceiling of how fast it can race without physically breaking down?
Compared to Thoroughbred horses, humans have only scratched the surface of their athletic potential. Humans are not selectively bred for athletic ability and only very recently in time have training methods, nutrition and equipment become more efficient. Perhaps this is why performance-enhancing drugs can bring about such significant improvements in human performance, as they help compensate for a lack of targeted genetic development. The result is that human world records are constantly tumbling and are likely to continue to tumble for as long as anyone reading this will be alive.
It may sound like a fanciful and perhaps even naive theory, but there is scientific evidence that suggests it may not be as wishful in its thinking as it might sound. For example, while anabolic steroids, EPO and blood-doping substances such as cobalt chloride have been long proven to be significant boosters of peak performance levels in humans, the scientific studies that have been conducted on the effects of those substances on the peak performance of Thoroughbred horses have been inconclusive at best, with many of them questioning whether they have any benefits at all.
To theorise why this might be the case, the fact that Thoroughbreds are naturally equipped with such freakish amounts of muscle mass on such a relatively light frame may mean that the use of anabolic steroids to add more muscle mass could well do more harm than good, unbalancing what is a finely balanced athletic equation leading to breakdown or athletic inefficiencies. With regard to EPO and cobalt chloride, the potential for them to have as significant an effect on Thoroughbreds as they do on humans is greatly reduced by the fact that all Thoroughbred horses have an in-built blood doping system in the form of their remarkable spleens, which flush great volumes of red blood cells into a horse’s blood stream when maximum effort is required.
Of course, even if this theory is correct and horse racing isn’t as vulnerable to chemical corruption as human sports, that doesn’t mean for one second that there shouldn’t be as heavy an emphasis as possible on drug testing and related research around the racing world. Whether or not drug cheats are getting the advantage they seek for their horses, those that are prepared to break the rules in search of an edge have to be pursued, caught and weeded out of the sport not only in the interests of a level playing field, but also in the interests of horse welfare.
The genetics of the Thoroughbred horse have been meticulously nurtured over the last 300 years to produce what is unquestionably the most majestic natural performance athlete on the planet. In a modern world where feats of great athletic achievement are greeted with as much suspicion as adulation, it is our job as an industry to ensure that horse racing is as clean as possible so that the world can appreciate the brilliant feats of our equine athletes without skepticism.