Racing officials in New York and California are beginning to make up for lost time in their 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 or veterinarians.
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 drug testing, increased surveillance, and stricter penalties for cheaters.
Likewise, California officials may have been shocked to discover how many horses there apparently 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 much more cheating going on below the surface, cheating that cannot be detected through current drug-screening methods. That may be why the New York Racing Association, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and Cornell University announced plans to freeze urine and blood samples for future testing. The California Horse Racing Board is looking into a similar program.
So should every other regulatory agency or track that has concerns about the integrity of its racing.
Human sports and horse racing face the same challenge: the cheaters are always one step ahead of the testing laboratories. But freezing test samples gives the labs an opportunity to catch up. It is common sense and an 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, all of those groups began testing for a previously unknown steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG for short), 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 Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, the now infamous operation linked to numerous athletes, including the controversial home run king, Barry Bonds.
Several track and field stars subsequently were stripped of medals and suspended from their sport. THG was also found in some NFL players' frozen samples. As a result of this scandal, several sports, including Major League Baseball, have had to deal with the specter of drugs.
A similar scenario could easily occur in racing. An illegal but currently undetectable substance, either discovered during a barn search or turned in by an honest or disgruntled stable employee, could be used to develop a new drug test. Once that test is developed, frozen samples could be screened and violators 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 of them 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 step. Freezing test samples must become standard operating procedure in racing.