If a drug existed that enhanced performance yet was undetectable by traditional testing methods would it pose a clear and present danger to the integrity of our sport?
Would some trainers succumb to the lure of success and easy money knowing they could cheat with impunity?
The answers seem obvious.
The drug does exist. It is Epogen. Epogen is also known as EPO. EPO and its closely related cousins are blood doping agents. EPO is manufactured for the purpose of increasing red blood cell production. It is used in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and those suffering from severe anemia. EPO saves lives. Human lives.
Administered to a horse, EPO is reported to enhance performance by producing additional red blood cells and thereby increasing the animal’s ability to transport oxygen.
After years of costly research, the University of Pennsylvania announced in August 2006 its discovery of a detection method for EPO in horses. This widely hailed breakthrough has finally provided the industry with a tool to detect and punish blood dopers. There are, however, obstacles to overcome. While the test can confirm EPO for approximately 72 hours after administration, the performance enhancing effects of EPO can last for weeks. As a consequence, the test is not effective in the usual post race sample testing environment.
However, there is a solution. Detecting EPO is possible by the utilization of out of competition testing. Out of competition testing is a fact of life for all major league and Olympic athletes. These athletes are subject to testing at anytime, anywhere, without notice. The uncertain nature of the time and date of securing blood samples promises to make detection (that was not possible in the past) possible and also to serve as an effective deterrent. Racing must act now to institute the out of competition model.
How widespread is blood doping in horse racing?
EPO is the drug that has ruined the sport of cycling—trashed the Tour de France. Cyclists inject EPO in their bodies knowing they are subject to out of competition testing. How naïve are we to believe that some trainers are not doing the same thing to animals they know are not subject to out of competition testing? We all lament the unexplained phenomenon of the “super trainer” or when meteoric rise in performance belies precedence and established norms. We live in an era where the terms “super trainer” and “juice” have become a part of every horseplayer’s vernacular. EPO or its blood doping relatives in the hands a few “ethically challenged” horsemen can make a mockery of any track’s racing program.
There is good news. Some racing commissions have stepped forward and have initiated active out of competition testing programs. Ontario, California, and Delaware have led the way. Indiana and Michigan have followed. Kentucky has performed limited testing of Kentucky Derby - Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) starters. New Jersey will likely begin its out of competition testing program later this month on the Breeders’ Cup World Championship participants. While this is an admirable beginning, so much more remains to be done.
The bad news is that there appears to be no sense of industry urgency to combat blood doping. What should give rise to a call for action is met with a response that can be best described as underwhelming. Industry stakeholders certainly favor the integrity of racing in the abstract. Implementing the necessary safeguards is another matter. Racing has to change. We all know that “racing” and “change” are typically not on friendly terms. In reality, they’re practically strangers.
Would some track owners prefer not to endure the inevitable publicity of a successful trainer charged with blood doping? Would some horsemen prefer to not be inconvenienced by the thought of testing anytime, anywhere, without notice? Are some racing commissions paralyzed by institutional inertia?
As we look forward to funding research to develop methods of detecting new illicit drugs, let’s take a backward glance to see what we have left on the table.
We have some unfinished business. Let’s get to work.
Joe Gorajec is the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission