They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?

Owner Michael Gill and trainer Mark Shuman, exonerated by lab test, hit back

It was Shuman's first run-in with the drug bureaucracy.

Passing the test, losing anyway

The use of illicit pharmacological substances in horses has probably been around for as long as the animals have raced competitively. Profit motive is a constant. Historical accounts of American racing are full of references to illegal substances, from turpentine to corn liquor, fed to horses. The famed Man o' War, the premier American racer of the Roaring Twenties, has been described as "the greatest hophead horse of all time." Like steroid-fueled Olympic athletes or bicyclists supercharged with illegal oxygen carriers, drug-using horses undermine the public's faith in sports. The difference is that, in horseracing, more money is at stake.

Ken Dewar
Michael Gill and Mark Shuman: the bad boys of racing?
Michael Gill and Mark Shuman: the bad boys of racing?

The horseracing community is tight, easily rattled. Recent reports of widespread use of an illicit, almost undetectable drug called erythropoietin, or EPO, set off alarm bells all over the country.

The main bulwark against horse doping in Florida is a low concrete building on 34th Street across from the main campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Each year some 60,000 urine and blood samples from horse and dog tracks are tested in the Racing Laboratory, once the veterinary school's primate center but now a spotless testing facility that hums with sophisticated machinery.

It's a place where technicians toss around fractions so small they're beyond human comprehension. Leading a visitor from room to room, lab director Cynthia Kollias-Baker, a slim woman with the upright bearing of someone who has done a lot of riding, pauses before a weighty-looking apparatus the size of a couple of window air conditioners. This is the juggernaut of trace analysis. It's a liquid chromatrograph mass spectrometer, Kollias-Baker says, and it can detect traces of drugs as small as a nanogram per milliliter. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.

Machines like the LCMS can find just about anything, Kollias-Baker says. The problem is knowing what to look for. "If someone can tell me what it is that trainers are using," she says, "I'll test all my samples for it."

Chemists have by now developed tests to detect hundreds of drugs, from opiates and cocaine derivatives to bronchial dilators and caffeine, from Tylenol to Vick's Cough Syrup, all of which, when present on race day, are enough to disqualify a horse and bring penalties to a trainer.

Last year the lab received about 27,000 samples from the state's four operating racetracks -- Gulfstream, Calder, Tampa Bay Downs, and Pompano Park -- and came up with positives 82 times. The majority of the hits, though, were for a mild, commonly used painkiller called phenylbutazone, which trainers are permitted to use up to 24 hours before post time. Most of the positive tests probably came from minor dosage miscalculations, state officials concede. Serious drugs like morphine and cocaine? They showed up only twice.

Still the state approaches the problem of horse-doping with deadly seriousness, investing heavily in keeping the sport clean. The Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering maintains post-race "detention" barns at each track, where winner, second-place horse, and often even the "show," are led immediately after the race for blood and urine samples. At Gulfstream, the detention barn is a row of a dozen stalls a short walk from the finish line. Shortly after a horse is led there, a veterinarian draws a blood sample from its jugular. A "catcher" stands at the ready with foam cups on sticks to gather the urine. (There's a natural tendency for thoroughbreds to urinate after a race, though in some cases staff veterinarian Billy Cannon has to call in veteran catcher Silvio Alonso, 82, who closes the stall door and slowly circles the horse, whistling hypnotically, cup at the ready.)

Samples are frozen and sent overnight to the Gainesville lab, where they're subjected to a battery of procedures. This is the Defense Department for synthetic chemistry. Centrifuges separate molecules by weight, like a miner panning for gold, and specially prepared sleuth antibodies (extracted from test animals) sniff out drugs at the molecular level. Then the spectrometers do their stuff, smashing traces of drugs and feeding the resultant particles through a magnetic field to analyze them by mass and electronic charge.

Even marquee trainers get caught up in the system. Former Derby champ Baffert, for instance, was fined $1000 in Louisiana earlier this year when one of his horses tested positive for a small amount of an illegal bronchodilator. Recently there has been a growing protest from horsemen's groups. "They're testing for levels so small, they couldn't possibly have any pharmacological effect," says Stirling, the Horsemen's Benevolent Association director. "How low can you go?"

After one recent race at Calder, a horse named Quanchontaug tested positive for a cocaine derivative. The substance turned up at a rate of ten nanograms per milliliter. After a hearing before an administrative law judge, the trainer was suspended for ten days and fined $100. If a tiny amount of cocaine had actually been fed to Quanchontaug to improve his performance, it hadn't worked very well. He ran third.

Maybe the enforcement system is ham-handed, but there's no question that slick operators are looking for a competitive edge with new drugs, state officials say. "It's human nature to try to beat the system," says Jim Decker, a former New York Police Department detective who's now the chief of investigation for the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

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