They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?

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

In some cases, the cheaters get away. A few years ago, a consortium of racing associations and professional groups ran a "supertest" to see if, even with state-run labs in place, drugs were going undetected. Lab technicians double-checked samples from twenty racetracks across the country. Of almost 1600 samples tested, 1.3 percent came back positive.

In recent years, investigators have found Viagra (used not so much for its usual stiffening effects as for lowering blood pressure), ephedrine, the Ecstasy-like benzylpiperazine, and a powerful painkilling snail toxin (produced synthetically as ziconotide) said to be 1000 times more powerful than morphine. Lately, though, enforcement officials worry most about EPO, a hard-to-detect synthetic hormone that can, as Kollias-Baker puts it, "give the system a little goose," though horses that have used the drug will develop telltale antibodies.

Kollias-Baker, who is a veterinary pharmacologist, doubts that EPO -- or any other drug -- is the "rocket fuel" that backstretch cynics say is giving some horses an edge. For one thing, the animals produce an EPO-like hormone withoutdrugs. "A horse has a contractile spleen," she says. "It can anticipate the exercise, releasing red blood corpuscles into the system. Horses are natural blood-dopers."

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

As for the persistent myth of the brilliant synthetic chemists working doggedly to turn out new, undetectable substances: "If there's somebody out there who's so good at what he does that he can take an opiate and move a molecule around so that our tests wouldn't recognize it," Kollias-Baker says, "that's one good biochemist. He'd be making a lot more money working for Pfizer or Glaxo Wellcome."

It was into the rarefied atmosphere of sophisticated testing at the Racing Lab that, on February 4, Pari-Mutuel Wagering officials dropped Casual Conflict's two front legs (the healthy one was sent along for purposes of comparison). Even for a veteran researcher like Kollias-Baker, the limbs were a gruesome sight. "Horrifying," says Kollias-Baker, who owns two horses. "You really worry about that kind of an injury. It doesn't happen that often. For people who have horses, it's a devastating occurrence."

A pathologist examined the injured leg for observable tampering; then those analytical machines went to work. "We were looking for any type of agent that might have been applied to nerves to desensitize a lower limb." The lab also checked blood for all the usual chemical suspects to see if Casual Conflict had been drugged into a state of hyperaggressiveness.

The result: zilch, nada, zero. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in Casual Conflict's leg.

Too late, though. By the time the Racing Lab's report was issued March 23, Sports Illustrated had already run an account of the incident of The Leg. A piece by Daniel G. Habib, on page 24 of the March 3 issue, described how Aleong "ran out and sawed off part of the right foreleg before it could be inspected by track vets."

"They've got him jumping the rail with a hacksaw," Gill says scornfully of SI. "The horse's body was in a holding area, ready for incineration. The leg was barely attached to the body. [Aleong] actually cut a piece of skin," thereby separating the limb. Decker, the investigator for Pari-Mutuel Wagering, confirmed Gill's account, adding that Aleong had said he wanted the limb for "research purposes."

The bad publicity came just as trainers were applying to racetracks for stall space for the spring meets. Managers of Delaware Park, where Shuman's horses had raced in the past, informed Gill and Shuman in a letter at the end of March that "you are not welcome on the grounds" of the track. The letter gave no reason for their exclusion, but chief operating officer William Fasy told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, "I just don't need the PR hassles I've had in the past two months."

For Gill, the attempts to keep him out of competition were "un-American." There's an "old boys network" at work in many tracks, Gill contends. "The real reason [for the exclusionary measures] is that, when your horses start winning a lot of races and become a dominant force at a meet," Gill said by telephone from his New Hampshire office, "you're taking food away from somebody else's mouth. The other trainers start saying, 'This guy is killing us.'" He contends that influential trainers have demanded that he and Shuman be blackballed.

And he'll see them all in court. Gill has initiated lawsuits against Delaware Park, Gulfstream, and some leading trainers. In the Gulfstream case, filed last month in U.S. District Court, Gill contends that management had a copy of the report exonerating him weeks before it was publicized. "The report was sitting there on [general manager] Scott Savin's desk while he was being interviewed by Sports Illustrated," Gill contends. "He could have cleared it all up." Savin would not comment.

Lawsuits and public recriminations -- it was a hell of a way to end a phenomenally successful season.

Gill and Shuman's strategy (as Gill puts it: "I put my horse where I think he's going to win, and I intimidate you about where you put your horse") had worked like a dream. Of course, critics are quick to point out that the strategy was good for scoring a lot of wins (Shuman entered 350 horses into Gulfstream races and won 26 percent of them) but also for losing a lot of money. Just to pay his vet bills, Gill spent about $250,000 a month. At the same time, he was investing heavily in the new crop of two-year-olds, shelling out eight million dollars in February at a horse auction in Ocala. "I'm not the first guy who came into the business with deep pockets and left with shallow ones," Gill says. "Horseracing will find your pain threshold. I came in knowing I was going to lose money. But I do it for the love of the game."

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