By T. D. Thornton
When news broke early Thursday about an alleged series of positive tests for the substance glaucine involving high-profile Standardbred trainers in New York, the story was picked up by a number of international publications because of its potential for creating bombshell reverberations in the rest of the racing world.
The most arresting aspect of the story first reported by the website Harnesslink.com was that two of the trainers allegedly involved were Ron Burke and Julie Miller–among the biggest names in United States harness racing. Miller is employed by Jeff Gural, a track owner and racehorse owner who is known for his draconian, zero-tolerance crusading against drug cheats.
A secondary concern that filtered through the racing world in the last 48 hours is open speculation about whether glaucine, which is known to ease breathing and improve airway intake, could be the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of being the latest performance-enhancing drug to besmirch the sport.
But Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director and chief operating officer for the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the industry-backed organization that develops uniform rules, policies and testing standards, told TDN in a Friday phone interview that because New York has yet to issue any official rulings or disclose any concentration levels about the alleged glaucine positives, it would be premature to leap to conclusions of widespread abuse.
Glaucine isn't even listed on the Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances and Recommended Penalties, Benson confirmed.
“It certainly has potential to be performance-enhancing,” Benson said. “It's used in European countries as a pharmaceutical. The U.S. does not have any FDA-approved over-the-counter or prescription drugs for animals or humans that have glaucine in them. So if someone's getting it, they're not getting it though appropriate channels. It's going to come down to what kind of concentrations, whether horses had been exposed to it, and whether the concentrations that they found are consistent with inadvertent environmental exposure.”
In fact, Benson's first thought when asked about glaucine positives was the possibility of accidental contamination from wood shavings derived from tulip trees.
“Glaucine is found in the tulip tree,” Benson explained. “Interestingly, we've seen this before. In 2013, the Pennsylvania commission had a rash of positives for glaucine. They were very concerned because it was across barns and it was across trainers.”
Pennsylvania authorities worked up some tests that involved exposing horses to different levels of tulip wood shavings, “and they actually found out that there was some potential for it to be due to environmental contamination at the concentrations that they found it,” Benson said.
“So you have to look at the totality of the circumstances,” Benson cautioned. “Because [accidental contamination] is a possibility if you see it across horses, across trainers, and it all of a sudden just kind of pops up… Now if it's one horse, and it's off the charts, then it's a different question.”
The 2014 book Side Effects of Drugs Annual: A Worldwide Yearly Survey of New Data in Adverse Drug Reactions describes glaucine as a “non-narcotic antitussive agent with anti-inflammatory action but little analgesic action… It is as effective as codeine, but has a shorter duration action.”
The book also describes human abuse of glaucine in herbal “head candy” tablet form to induce psychotic hallucinations.
The initial Harnesslink story cited correspondence from attorney Howard Taylor, who is also a Standardbred owner, claiming that “he has been retained by several trainers whose horses recently had positive tests in New York.”
As of 5:00 p.m. Friday, the New York State Gaming Commission online database of rulings listed no recent rulings related to glaucine. Lee Park, the director of communications for the New York State Gaming Commission, did not immediately respond to a TDN request asking about details of how or if the state tests for glaucine.
Gural owns the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs in New York. He campaigns a Standardbred stable and owns at least one Thoroughbred that has competed in New York over the past year. He has frequently been in the news over the past decade for his attempts to clean up harness racing by barring dozens of horsemen from his tracks for alleged drug violations that Gural tests for independently beyond what is required by state racing rules.
He issued a statement Friday that read, in part:
“Although I am currently on vacation, I have been made aware that apparently several trainers at Yonkers Raceway including Julie Miller and Ron Burke have had horses test positive for glaucine. As you know, Ms. Miller trains several horses for me and Mr. Burke trains Gural Hanover, a horse of which I am a part-owner. Both trainers have already called me and vigorously denied the accusations… Until an official announcement has been made by the NYGC, Ms. Miller, Mr. Burke, and other trainers whose horses received positive tests are otherwise in good standing at our three facilities.”
Benson said she didn't know exactly which states test for glaucine or what their threshold levels might be.
“Pennsylvania found it as early as 2013, so it's not a new test,” Benson said. “I'm not sure whether the lab director at the time shared it with anyone else, but it wasn't something that they certainly kept hidden. Now as far as other laboratories, you'd have to ask them whether they have tests for it. But it does have a specific molar mass, so hypothetically, with modern testing methodology, you could have a test for it.”
Benson said that although no one involved in New York equine drug testing has contacted her office directly to discuss the RMTC's glaucine protocols, the topic did come up at an RMTC scientific advisory committee meeting earlier this week.
Dr. Scott Palmer, the Equine Medical Director for the NYSGC, asked about glaucine, Benson said, and he happened to be sitting next to Dr. Mary Robinson, the director of Pennsylvania's Equine Pharmacology Laboratory.
“So they'll get some information about the likelihood and the types of concentrations that Pennsylvania saw so that they can kind of compare it,” Benson said.