Racing officials in New York and California are beginning to make up for lost time in efforts to crack down on the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs in horses.
For years, regulators defended the sport's credibility, pointing to what they said was state-of-the-art testing of horses and a minimum number of violations for performance-enhancing drugs. Honest horsemen and handicappers didn't buy it; they saw massive spikes in performance measurements by horses associated with certain trainers, veterinarians, or owners.
The recent scandal in New York allegedly involving organized crime, rebate-shop betting, and a "juiced" horse may have been the tipping point for New York Racing Association officials to get deadly serious about drugs.
Likewise, California officials may have been shocked to learn how many horses there were racing under the influence of performance-enhancing substances when they began secret testing for milkshakes--carbon dioxide loading--last summer.
Officials in both states must think there is more cheating going on--cheating that cannot be detected through current drug-screening methods. That may be why the NYRA, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and Cornell University announced plans to freeze samples for future testing. The California Horse Racing Board is looking into a similar program.
Human sports and horse racing have faced the same challenge: the cheaters are always a step ahead of the testing laboratories. But freezing test samples gives the labs an opportunity to catch up. It is a common sense and inexpensive way to deal with the problem.
Track and field freezes its samples. So do the International Olympic Committee (for both the Summer and Winter Games), the ruling body for swimming competition, and the National Football League, among others.
In 2003, those groups began testing for a previously unknown steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), after a used syringe with traces of the substance was turned in to the United States Anti Doping Agency, an independent body created in 2000 to test Olympic athletes. The coach who allegedly turned in the syringe said the THG came from Victor Conte, owner of the now-famous BALCO lab linked to controversial home run king Barry Bonds.
Numerous track and field stars subsequently were stripped of medals and suspended. THG was also found in some NFL players' frozen samples. The scandal has rocked the sports world.
A similar scenario could easily occur in racing. An illegal but undetectable substance, discovered during a search or turned in by an honest or disgruntled stable employee, could be used to develop a new test. Once that test is developed, frozen samples could be screened and violators punished.
A perfect use of frozen samples would have involved erythropoietin, or EPO, the blood-doping substance first used to enhance performance in bicycle racing. It is widely believed a number of well-known and successful horses were treated with EPO beginning in the 1990s. Now that racing can detect that drug, a veterinarian told me recently, the cheaters have moved on to different substances that are not detectable. If racing officials had frozen the samples, EPO users may have been caught and punished.
Freezing samples puts cheaters on notice that they are not necessarily free and clear just because the initial drug screening detected no illegal substances. This may cause some to think twice about taking an edge. And it may lead to some sleepless nights for those who continue to violate the rules.
There is no excuse not to take this simple, inexpensive step. Freezing test samples must become standard operating procedure in racing.