“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Hosea, 8:7
If you want to start an argument among horseplayers, vets, owners, trainers or racetrack management, just say “drugs.” In many quarters, even legal raceday medications, Lasix in particular, are under great fire. There is growing support for the idea that racing in America can be drug free.
It is an idea based on a belief that we can be Hong Kong or Europe if only we could muster the will to give it a shot. I’ve pointed out why we cannot become Hong Kong (see http://halveyonhorseracing.com/?p=910). Some of the same arguments apply to why we cannot be Europe either.
It is an idea based on either a misinterpretation of pharmacological studies or simply ignoring that horses get ill just like humans do, and the right thing to do is care for the horse the same way you would care for yourself – with medication you can obtain either by prescription or over the counter. If you’ve ever had an infection, if you’ve ever sprained an ankle, if you’ve ever had an asthma attack, if you’ve ever had a wisdom tooth removed or had even minor surgery, you know the importance of having medications to deal with the pain and inflammation. The 26 medications on the RMTC approved medication list are there because they help manage the health of a horse.
Pharmacologically though, these therapeutic medications can stay in your system long after they have stopped having the appropriate effect. As I’ve said before, if you are measuring in picograms (trillionth of a gram) you can take ibuprofen yesterday and still have it show up tomorrow, long after it stopped working to reduce swelling or pain.
It is based on the idea that, given any opening, trainers would indiscriminately inject horses to build super animals, muscle-bound like four-legged Schwarzeneggers, impervious to pain and running through injury. Even if that were a real concern, it would only be for an incredibly small number of trainers who could be found and run out of racing. Those who are trying to get you to believe that trainers are giving horses banamine and 24 hours later the horse is running through injury as if it wasn’t there are peddling propaganda that would be comical if there weren’t so many people ready to believe it. Believe the science, not the anecdote.
Mostly, it is an idea that all racing is Saratoga or Gulfstream or Del Mar. It isn’t and we all know it. If your entire opinion is based on racing at Belmont or Saratoga, you may want to remember there are 98 other tracks out there, most of which aren’t Belmont or Saratoga. I pointed out that Hong Kong could get through an entire year’s worth of races with full fields with less than 2,000 total horses in training. North America couldn’t make it through a weekend of racing in August with only that many horses in the stables. On a miserable Saturday in January 18 tracks are running races. In one January week we will run more races than Hong Kong runs all year. If North American tracks decided to run 83 days a year, sure we could probably identify enough high quality horses to run without any raceday medication. If we were all willing to accept that racing in every state other than California, New York, Kentucky, Florida and maybe one or two others would have to revert to fair status perhaps we would be able to go completely drug free.
If you think there are people out there who aren’t working toward making racing at non-major venues non-viable, think again. Getting medications to be illegal at picogram levels everywhere ultimately leaves the mega-track owners with the oligopoly they one day hope to have. That’s not just my opinion – that is a widely held opinion on backsides from Key West to Seattle. The irony is that many small-state racing commissions are adopting standards that ultimately will drive away the horsemen they depend on, either because those jurisdictions are being threatened with denial of certification or because they have been pushed into believing anything short of a medication ban is bad for racing. Believe me, I’ve talked to trainers who have told me no less. I’ll be doing an in-depth piece on this topic in the near future.
I made the point about a compromise for dealing with Lasix in my article, To Lasix or Not to Lasix http://halveyonhorseracing.com/?p=327 There is a solution if you are willing to limit drug free running to the biggest meets and loosen up for the B and C level tracks. But if you expect to run completely drug free at C level tracks, you are being overoptimistic, if not unrealistic. The horses are at these tracks for two primary reasons. They belong to the equivalent of hobbyists who have farms and want to run locally, but don’t run year round, or the owners and trainers have stock that doesn’t have the talent to compete at the highest levels. The point is that there is a way to have your cake and eat it too in North America.
Which brings me to this weeks topic – anabolic steroids. Maryland has been in the news lately because four trainers were cited for the presence of stanozolol in their post race samples between mid-November and mid December. Why all of a sudden are we seeing these positives? Because Maryland has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward steroids. RMTC induced them to be the test case for zero-tolerance.
And with good reason too. According to the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), there were three – that’s right, three – positives for steroids in the first 10 months of 2014. Practically an epidemic. Apparently the old rules, which generally allowed therapeutic injections as long as they were 30 days before a race, were simply not catching enough scofflaws.
Before someone makes the mistake of thinking I believe we should be allowing anabolic steroids without restriction, let me disabuse you of the notion. My argument is that the old 30 day rule, which could have probably been moved to 40 days without too much static from trainers, was perfectly fine. It would allow for reasonable therapeutic application while assuring the racing public that no horse was gaining an advantage. It would also avoid the obvious problem – trainers wouldn’t have to “pre-test” the horse to make sure there wasn’t a stray picogram left in the system. The zero-tolerance rule has the effect of requiring trainers to keep horses that have been treated in the barn two to three months, OR stop using steroids altogether, even when they are indicated as the best therapeutic treatment for a horse. Anyone who has had a cortisone shot knows exactly what I mean.
Four trainers- Scott Lake, Hector Garcia, A. Ferris Allen III, and Jerry Thurston – were cited by Maryland after the new rules went into effect for the steroid stanozolol.
Stanozolol, marketed until recently as Winstrol, is used by trainers mainly as an appetite stimulant and as an aid in recovery after surgery (and an awful lot of male horses have surgery, also known as gelding). It has been used by veterinarians preferentially in cases of “failure to thrive.” However, it obviously has the same effects that anabolic steroids are known to have when it comes to muscle building, (and roid rage) and for that reason it is important not to allow horses to run while the steroid is having a performance-enhancing effect.
Winstrol is no longer manufactured, so stanozolol has to be made at a compounding pharmacy, and as you might immediately discern, the formula can vary slightly, meaning the amount of time it can take for the drug to metabolize out of a horse’s system can vary from 20 days up to even 90 days in rare circumstances. This metabolizing time becomes important as we will see later.
Garcia claimed surprise at the positive, insisting he knew of no one in his barn who applied stanozolol. That is the trainer version of someone must have broken into my house and stolen my homework. It carries no weight with the stewards. Lake seemed to be pushing the envelope and got nailed. His complaint is more about the harshness of the penalty than the unfairness of the standard. But the situation for A. Ferris Allen III was entirely different.
Allen’s horse, Richard’s Gold, was treated post-surgically with stanozolol and was entered to race 37 days later. The application of the drug was noted on medication sheets, and all this was confirmed by the testimony of the administering veterinarian. No one was trying to hide anything. The veterinarian advised Allen that 30 days should be sufficient to meet the medication rules and this was based on the veterinary practice’s experience with administering over 500 doses of stanozolol and never seeing a positive. Of course, that was before the rules changed.
When Allen was informed that his horse had tested positive, he requested that a split sample be tested, and although initially Maryland didn’t want to give him the numerical results of the tests, eventually they told him the first test was 40 picograms and the confirmatory test was 60 picograms. Arithmetically, the confirmatory test was 50% higher than the original test and that kind of variability is not unusual. Of course, with a zero-tolerance standard, it doesn’t matter as long as the amount is greater than zero.
Let me put that in perspective. A trillion seconds is over 31,000 years. A trillion grams is over 2.2 billion pounds (if I did the arithmetic correctly). You can back calculate, if you want, the weight of a trillionth of a gram in pounds, but I can tell you there a lot of zeros between the decimal point and the first positive numeral. If you combined the weight of every living human being, all seven billion of them or so, they’d weigh a bit over a trillion pounds. If you took one four year old and stuck him in the middle of a group containing everyone else in the world, you’d have the equivalent of 40 picograms. If I took one-trillionth of the blood in your body it would be an amount so small you couldn’t see it without a very powerful microscope. So 40 or 60 picograms is a really, really small amount. To paraphrase Dr. Steven Barker, the pre-eminent equine pharmacologist, show me someone who can measure down to 40 picograms and I’ll show you someone with a new mass spectrometer.
Frankly, when racing commissions tell the public a complete ban on steroids is necessary to protect the integrity of racing, it ignores both the therapeutic value of such drugs and the pharmacological reality that at low picogram concentrations there is no impact on performance.
Ferris Allen made a good point about the fine and the days he was given. Allen, who happened to own the horse that tested positive, said losing the purse was punishment enough. Getting fined on top of that is like double dipping. If Allen is upset, it is that the loss of the purse, loss of his ability to make a living during the suspension, an additional fine on top of all that, the hit to his reputation and its effect on his ability to attract quality clients, and the assignment of four penalty points, was out of all proportion to the actual violation.
Ferris Allen is another of an increasing number of trainers who are getting caught up in what may ultimately be a fight for the survival of small tracks and small stables. There is a 100 picogram minimum level for a stanozolol positive in a number of jurisdictions, and there is no reason it couldn’t be adopted by all jurisdictions, instead of the the zero-tolerance standard being pushed by ARCI and RMTC.
Let’s punish the people pushing the envelope or out and out cheating and mete out fair justice to the others caught up in the fervor to fix racing’s problems, both real and concocted.