I first walked on the backside of Sunland Park Racetrack when I was 15 years old in 1963 and fell under the spell of horse racing. My dream was to be a racehorse trainer. For the next 16 years, the racetrack was my only vocation. I would go to tracks all over the country, live in tack rooms, gallop horses in the morning and get jobs in the afternoon. I worked as an assistant trainer, assistant starter, made charts for the DRF, and drove a tractor on the track maintenance crew. I could live cheap, save my money and only took enough time away from it to get my college degree. I worked for a variety of trainers both big and small. I trained my first winner when I was 18 and spent the last six years training a small stable of horses through the Midwest. I met my wife when she was a mutuel clerk at a track in Nebraska. She cleaned thousands of stalls, walked many hots and nursed our babies in the tack room between sets. I was entrenched in the unique world of the backside–I was a racetracker and I have seen the good, bad and the ugly. I was at the zenith of our game witnessing huge crowds during mid-week and I watched many of the greats run–Secretariat, Buckpasser, and Dr. Fager. I also saw horses hopped, ringers, races fixed, and slow horses put down for insurance. I once saw a trainer boldly hang a needle in his horse in the saddling paddock.
We have overcome many of our sins on the road to redemption. I may be naive, but I believe that the days are over for ringers, insurance fraud, and for the most part, race fixing. But performance-enhancing drugs are the one sin that remains and the level of its sophistication has grown exponentially. In an earlier time, drugs like etorphine (elephant juice), fentanyl (Sublimaze), Ritalin, apomorhine, amphetamine, nitroglycerin, acepromazine, and cobra venom were used until a test was developed for them. They were all produced and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies and were on the radar. In the mid 70’s, I trained at Oaklawn Park and watched Dan Lasater win race after race on his way to national championships and three Eclipse Awards. I have heard that Sublimaze is the drug he was rumored to have been using. He was later convicted and served time for distribution of cocaine. We can name other Eclipse Award-winning owners (and nominees) who have “likely” benefitted from PED’s with huge win percentages, only to have their trainers subsequently fall off the map.
Times change, but people don’t. The trainer’s mentality is that if it is not on the illegal list and won’t test, it is okay to use. Today, the selection and availability of designer drugs produced in clandestine labs is unlimited. Computer models have given the underground chemist the ability to modify a known drug, whether anabolic, narcotic or stimulant, tweaking the molecule and making small doses even more powerful, and guess what–it doesn’t test because it hasn’t been identified and there is no organized effort to develop the test. Balco THG, and dermomorphin (frog juice) are known examples. The only reason they were caught was that someone turned in syringes with residue. I did a search on some drug blogs and found you could order frog juice off the net back in 2004. Currently, there is a multitude of stimulants based on synthetic cathionoes that are 10 times more powerful than cocaine. You can bet your last dollar that they are being used some where because there are NO TESTS for them.
One drug that has decades of continuous use is EPO. There is no doubt that it has been used at the highest level. There has never been a horse to test positive for it post-race because everyone knows that it can only be detected in the first 24 to 36 hours after administration (requiring a sophisticated expensive test) and it is always given days or even weeks out. The only way it will ever be caught is with Out-of-Competition Testing, which is virtually non-existent in North American horse racing.
The American Thoroughbred industry is at the proverbial crossroads. The choice is ours: which direction will we choose? One path maintains the status quo with 38 dysfunctional jurisdictions that are underfunded, politically appointed, and lack the expertise to challenge the cheaters. The other road offers the choice of appointing a USADA-type organization having the mission, funding and expertise to meet that challenge. The pending House bill that will be introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (NY) offers the opportunity to have that ultimate drug organization.
There will certainly be those that fear and oppose this path. For those that cite philosophical opposition (and I was one of them at one time) to any Federal involvement in our business– they already are. The Feds have granted us a monopoly on interstate gambling with the Interstate Horse Racing Act. Another example: race-fixing in the 60’s and 70’s nearly destroyed our industry until the Feds started prosecuting jockeys and trainers under the RICO laws. Without Federal help, we would have lost our industry.
Without having a central professional organization that is dedicated to creating gold standards for testing with the authority to conduct out-of-competition testing and administer punishment, we will continue to have those trainers who will seek an edge and we will continue our slide into irrelevance. Whether we want to accept it or not, the public views horse racing as drug-infested with impotent testing.
Are we fed up enough? Are we brave enough to take that leap towards full redemption?
God, I can only hope so.
Editor’s note: To read the Horseracing Anti-Doping Act of 2015, visit the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity at http://www.horseracingintegrity.com