More Than a Milkshake

By Dr. Rick M. Arthur
Early in 2004, California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) commissioner Bill Bianco, a Fog City Stable partner, and the Oak Tree Racing Association offered to pay for a survey to determine whether there was a milkshaking problem in California racing.

The term "milkshake" originated from the appearance of a bicarbonate slurry administered via a stomach tube a few hours prior to a race. Today, milkshaking is much more sophisticated and the stomach tube is largely unnecessary. In the simplest terms sodium bicarbonate, or any other alkalizing agent, for that matter, buffers the lactic acid produced by extreme muscle exertion and thereby delays fatigue.

Anecdotally, the response in some horses to milkshaking is dramatic. There is irony in something as simple as baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), a product found in every kitchen cabinet, causing such a problem. Testing for milkshakes is accomplished by measuring total carbon dioxide (TCO2) in plasma--a simple, accurate, instrumented procedure.

The original milkshake survey in California was handled through the CHRB. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club contracted directly with the Maddy Laboratory at the University of California at Davis for its 2004 meet.

Del Mar began TCO2 testing without advance warning Aug. 1. Two races were tested every other day. The results from the first eight races were shocking. Where we had been told by the now departed CHRB executive director, Roy Wood, that there was not a problem, Del Mar had 19 of the 82 samples, nearly 25%, over 37mmls/l, including eight of 82 over 39mmls/l. Even though the percentage of horses was amazingly high, the percentage of trainers involved has always been low. Del Mar immediately increased backstretch security and insisted the CHRB confront the trainers. The levels dropped overnight.

In the face of the Del Mar results, Oak Tree addressed the issue head on. We notified all trainers of our anti-milkshaking policy with their stall approval letters. We had the unqualified support of our horsemen through their respective organizations, the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) and Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC). Every horse that ran at our meet except one intractable filly was tested. The results were eight of 1,773 over 37mmls/l, or about 0.5%, including only one of 1,773 over 39mmls/l.

The horsemen and patrons were so supportive that the CTT, TOC, and Santa Anita included provisions for TCO2 testing and related sanctions in the purse agreements. The horsemen wanted a level playing field and the racetracks were convinced an honest race is good business. At Santa Anita through March 6 there have been five of 3,293 (less than 0.2%) exceeding the 37mmls/l threshold and none over 39mmls/l.

This is not a trivial issue. In humans, bicarbonate loading has been shown to increase the exercise time to exhaustion by 50% during certain standard exercise tests. For a racehorse, what impact would even a 1% increase in time to exhaustion have on the outcome of a race? Careers of trainers, horses, and a few veterinarians, I'm sorry to say, have been made by milkshaking, and their success has always been at the expense of others.

The California experience has been successful. The tracks and horsemen, on their own and outside of the state regulatory system, eliminated 99% of the problem (25% to 0.2%) in six months. Most importantly, we have made no mistakes and, for the most part, the trainers see the process as fair. Much of this has been because our goal has been to eliminate the problem rather than to discipline anyone.

As this issue shakes out over the next few months, there will be disagreements and controversy as to how horse racing should deal with the milkshaking problem. The Racing Medication Testing Consortium is in the process of assembling a scientific panel to review the regulation of milkshaking in the next few weeks with the hope of developing recommendations for a national policy soon thereafter. If there are scientific questions that still need to be answered, the committee is prepared to fund that research.

But ultimately, the real question is, what kind of sport do we want?

Racetrack veterinarian RICK M. ARTHUR is a director and vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association and a member of the Racing Medication Testing Consortium.