Commentary: Forked Tongue

Commentary:  Forked Tongue
Photo: Lee Thomas
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

Snakes have been part of horse racing for a long time, and so has the poisonous venom from the cobra snake.

The traditional snakes I’m referring to include the cheaters who would take every possible edge to win a race. Their definition of what substances are legal and illegal is often determined by whether or not tests exist to detect the substance. That’s a long-established position held among some horsemen, and it’s one that’s unethical to the core.

Included in that “it’s not illegal if you can’t test for it” category is cobra venom, the use of which has been rumored for years. The substance, believed to be 1,000 times more powerful than morphine, can help a horse run through pain by blocking impulses through the nervous system. Use of the substance in horse racing is illegal. Worse yet, it’s cruel to the animal.

It wasn’t until 2002 that some horse racing regulators specifically targeted cobra venom as a prohibited substance and tried to develop a test for it. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium sent out requests for proposals for cobra venom tests that year but got no response from any chemists or laboratories. The following year it received one proposal that RMTC executive director Scot Waterman said failed to get recommended funding for a scientific advisory committee.

The challenge, Waterman said, is that an extremely minute dose of cobra venom can be used to block pain, and hardly a trace of the substance finds its way into a horse’s blood stream or urine sample. The venom is injected just below the skin, with a nerve believed to be the target of the injection.

There is heightened interest in cobra venom following published reports suggesting the substance was discovered during a search of trainer Patrick Biancone’s barns at Keeneland June 26. The barn search, and that of veterinarian Rod Stewart’s vehicle, was conducted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority and Keeneland’s own security team. KHRA officials have not confirmed what prohibited substances, if any, were found during the search. The case emphasizes the importance of barn and veterinary vehicle searches in the war against the cheaters. Testing isn’t enough.

Biancone, a 55-year-old native of France, enjoyed his first international success in 1983 when he guided the Wildenstein family’s All Along through a championship season that included Horse of the Year honors in North America after grade I wins in the Washington, D.C., International, Turf Classic, and Rothmans International. He’s won numerous grade or group I races and has worked for some of the sport’s most powerful outfits, including John Magnier’s Coolmore operation and Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs.

Biancone left France and spent most of the 1990s successfully training in Hong Kong, which has a zero-tolerance drug policy. He was fined for a number of medication violations in 1996, then received a 10-month ban in 1999 after at least two of his horses tested positive for a prohibited substance. Biancone landed in the United States, getting his trainer’s license and opening a public stable in 2000.

Horses trained by Biancone earned a mere $297,460 that first year, but by 2002 his earnings exceeded $1 million. Last year was his best year yet, with $5,347,379 in prize money, an average of more than $17,000 per start from 311 starts.

The barn search and published reports about suspected cobra venom didn’t slow Biancone down. He won the $1-million CashCall Mile Invitational (gr. IIT) with Lady of Venice at Hollywood Park July 6 and the Locust Grove Handicap (gr. IIIT) with Mauralakana at Churchill Downs July 8, putting him at $2.9 million in earnings for the year.

Biancone isn’t talking, and neither are the authorities—at least not on the record. Expect to be hearing a lot more about this case in the near future.

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