Suspend the Horses

For a few years, the good guys have suspected something foul. They watched, their jaws slack and their eyebrows arched, as horses improved not just dramatically but almost miraculously. They watched as their own horses chased home rivals that ran through the lane as though supercharged, turning in performances five, maybe 10 lengths better than anything their histories even hinted might be possible.

Yes, the good guys, the men and women who wear the metaphorically white hats and play the game squarely, were growing more and more suspicious with each racing day. And now their suspicions have been confirmed. Something is indeed foul. If those miraculously improving horses run as though supercharged, they quite possibly are supercharged.

Test results in Texas, New York, and Louisiana have confirmed the alarming, and perhaps widespread, use of erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO. The results have left the sport and its regulators reeling as they try to determine an appropriate response. And circumstances demand a quick response. With the integrity of the game being questioned, this is no time for hesitation or appeasement: The horses must be suspended.

In Texas, out of about 55 horses tested Jan. 16-17 at Sam Houston, six horses were found to have antibodies indicative of EPO exposure. Fifteen cases have turned up in Louisiana and an unspecified number in New York.

This is far graver than the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6 scam. That was a gross anomaly, an egregious aberration, perpetrated by a trio of computer geeks. The EPO threat, on the other hand, could touch every major racing jurisdiction in the land. The unscrupulous persons willing not just to cheat but also to jeopardize the health of their animals and the future of the sport are the very persons that bettors trust whenever they shove a couple bucks through the wickets. The Ultra Pick 6 scam was "Revenge of the Nerds." The EPO threat is "War of the Worlds."

And it's a war horse racing absolutely must win.

EPO, of course, is a synthetic human hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen. In other words, EPO can potentially enhance stamina. It won't make a horse run faster, but it might enable a horse to run fast longer; and when it comes to winning races, that distribution of energy, that extension of speed, is just as important as the speed itself.

But the recent test results apparently will lead to no suspensions or penalties. The new Maylin-McKeever test detects the antibodies produced by EPO, not the drug itself. And because the antibodies can remain with a horse for months, the test can't assign culpability. A horse could have been exposed to EPO when it was in the care of another trainer. Nor has a confirming test been developed.

The "trial" testing will continue, but beyond that what's to be done? The threat to the sport is enormous. Owners are hesitant to participate in a game where the unscrupulous have an advantage, and bettors have become fearful of investing in the outcome of races tainted by inscrutable and hopelessly unpredictable performances. (If you don't think the bettors are aware, just stroll the grandstand one afternoon.)

Although the tests can't conclusively identify the cheaters, they can identify the horses involved. And the horses should be suspended. EPO can affect the viscosity of the blood, cause anemia, and even lead to death. If regulators are aware of horses at risk and do nothing, they're like the people who stand aside and just watch some violent or tragic event without trying to prevent it. Regulators have a responsibility to stop these horses from racing, just as the NFL has a responsibility to prevent somebody with a heart condition from playing in the league.

Second, there's the duty to protect the bettors. For the moment, regulators invite bettors to participate in the sport and at the same time say, "Oh, by the way, some of these horses, maybe even 10%, have been treated with an illicit performance-enhancer, but we're not going to tell you which ones."

The EPO horses should be put on a list, similar to a bleeders' or vets' list, and suspended from racing until a test confirms the absence of the concomitant antibodies. If the horses are allowed to race, the good guys have lost again.

Gary West, who writes for the Dallas Morning News, is a correspondent for The Blood-Horse.