By Barry Irwin
-- Racing folks viewing the telecast of the Winter Olympics are forgiven for shaking in their slippers after two long-distance skiers were stripped of gold medals. Officials DQ'd the skiers when tests made it clear that the red blood cell count of the athletes had been enhanced chemically. An abnormally high red blood cell count makes it possible for muscles to utilize more oxygen, thereby delaying fatigue, a handy asset for an athlete involved in endurance sports.
Shaking commenced when the commentator revealed the illegal substance used was darbepoetin, an erythropoietin-like drug that reportedly is 10 times stronger than EPO. The new drug of choice, like many of its modern predecessors, was designed for humans, in this case to aid kidney patients with anemia.
A lot has been written recently about whether use of illegal drugs in horse racing is rampant. Those who say a problem does not exist ask those who believe one does to prove it.
Therein lies a Catch-22 whose main beneficiaries are those who cheat.
I would like to suggest a new angle from which to gauge whether illegal drug use is likely, as well as a way to deal with the problem.
For those who seek a smoking gun, consider that every drug which has found its way into horse racing was first used in track and field or cycling.
Clenbuterol? Track and field had it first. Steroids? Track and field again. Creatine? Mark McGwire you say? Hardly. Track and field again. EPO? Cyclists were first.
Late last year a test reportedly was developed to detect use of EPO. But, alas, darbepoetin was ready to supplant EPO as the blood-doping chemical of choice among human athletes.
Darbepoetin is not a myth dreamed up by a gambler who lost a bet, nor is it an excuse used by a horse owner after his horse got beat. The drug is real and is being used by runners, cyclists, and skiers.
Darbepoetin improves endurance, as has been evidenced by long-distance runners, cyclists, and skiers. There is a long-held notion that no illegal substance exists that can make a horse run faster than it is capable of. Darbepoetin and EPO do not make a horse run faster, but allow a horse to delay going into oxygen debt and decelerate at a slower rate.
Any horseman who has chosen to use EPO has gotten away with it.
Trainers, jockeys, owners, and bettors are all aware of the upward spikes in form of horses that suddenly re-break at the eighth pole. It is not their imaginations.
Are there knowledgeable horsemen who believe that high-profile trainers with outrageously high win percentages might be using EPO? Yes, and I am among them.
So, here is my point: it should not be considered a longshot that these drugs are being used in horse racing. Based on the historical precedent of drugs coming from human athletics, it would be a longshot if they are not being used!
Darbepoetin is a landmark drug in the constant battle between the regulators and participants, in which the cheaters invariably have been a jump ahead of the law, which is why it has never been easy to catch the bad guys.
The Winter Olympics may wind up being remembered not so much for Sarah Hughes as for the first important stand by the law against the cheaters. The maker of darbepoetin, in a glorious, if rare, act of responsible behavior, devised a test for detection of this new drug concurrent with the drug's development. The drug maker kept the test a secret and supplied it to the Olympic organizers, allowing them to take the cheaters by surprise.
Failing such responsible actions by other drug makers, what is the way to end the Catch-22?
My suggestion for ending the cycle of cheaters outrunning the law is this: horse racing needs to create the funding to gather samples of blood/urine and freeze them to give the law the time it needs for its detective work. When, at a later date, it is determined who the bad guys are, don't just fine them, but rule them off the Turf. A strong message like that would narrow the gap between those who cheat and the law.Barry Irwin
is the president of Team Valor.