Random pre-race testing for "milkshakes"--the loading of bicarbonates through a stomach tube to reduce fatigue-causing buildup of lactic acid--began at Santa Anita Park in late February, but the California Horse Racing Board is referring to the program as a survey because no penalties will be applied if a horse tests positive.
Concerned over widespread accusations among trainers that the illegal race-day treatment is a problem, an anonymous donor provided several thousand dollars to launch the program in California. The Oak Tree Racing Association volunteered additional funding to the CHRB, which claims to be short on funds, to ensure the tests would continue for at least three months.
In some jurisdictions, particularly at Standardbred tracks, pre-race testing for milkshakes provides immediate results. A horse found to have suspiciously high levels of carbon dioxide or bi-carbonates will be scratched and a suspension and fine is likely for the trainer. But the California tests, overseen by CHRB equine medical director Dr. Ron Jensen, are being sent to the testing laboratory at Ohio State University.
No results have come back, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, a prominent veterinarian and a director for Oak Tree. A spokesman for the CHRB said overall results of the survey will be released, but no individual horses testing positive will be identified. Jensen was traveling outside of the U.S. and could not be reached to provide further information.
"What the CHRB is really trying to do is see if there is a problem and evaluate whether pre-race bi-carb testing should be instituted," said Arthur, who said approximately 500 samples have been collected so far.
Random races are selected, and blood is collected from every horse in that race while they are gathered in the test barn just prior to being saddled. Arthur said the decision to test every starter in a race was made so no trainers would feel they were being singled out for a procedure that can cause horses to become agitated.
"Some of the trainers are happy with it, some are not," Arthur added. "Most of the complaints are that the horses are getting upset in the test barn. That is a legitimate concern."
The practice is banned in all states on raceday. The Arizona Department of Racing recently launched a trial program similar to California's, and in February the Illinois Racing Board hiked penalties for trainers of horses testing positive.