The hunt for the next drug test

As long as there has been racing, there have been those willing to take every available edge, however unscrupulous. Winning at any cost might be a sound and admirable business model, but regulations are necessary in every endeavor. And those willing to venture beyond the prescribed boundaries, the specific arena notwithstanding, are never dissuaded by the constraints imposed in the interest of the greater good. There is a ubiquitous minority that considers regulation no more than surmountable inconvenience.

More than six decades ago, Tom Smith, whose résumé already included Seabiscuit, was slapped with a one-year suspension in New York for spraying an ephedrine solution into the nostrils of horses he trained for Elizabeth Arden. At the time, he was winning at a 40 percent clip. Things have not changed; they simply have become more so and far more sophisticated. In recent years, some of the current stars of the training profession -- those who have come to be called "super trainers" -- have served suspensions, some lengthy, for violations of various medication rules in a variety of jurisdictions. This is a cat-and-mouse game played on a treadmill that has no off switch. There is always the next drug.

Andrew Cohen, in harnesslink.com, writes of the substance du jour:

When something like ITPP is introduced into the racing arena -- as is the case in every chemical flavor of the moment -- it is the work of the veterinary community, which operates in the shadows, hidden from public scrutiny.

"A new type of blood-doping drug, informally called ITPP, according to several sources, has likely found its way into our horses and our sport. Could its growing use and presence, undetectable through current testing protocols, help explain the precipitous drop in perceived racing integrity over the past year or so?"

Truth be told, the precipitous drop in perceived racing integrity is much older than a year or so. It is decades, if not lifetimes, long. But perception of integrity is not the issue. The issue is that the perception is not altogether inaccurate or the suspicion unfounded. There is always the next drug, and the next drug works until it is identified and testing procedures are developed and employed. Then begins the hunt for the next drug. Fact: Wherever there is money, there will be thieves and cheaters.

But seldom is the accusatory finger pointed entirely in the right direction. Pointing fingers in this case requires both hands.

Trainers are the focus of scrutiny and pay the price, eventually, in suspensions and fines when science finally, if only temporarily, overtakes the cheaters. But how many trainers are really sophisticated in such matters? Almost none. When something like ITPP is introduced into the racing arena -- as is the case in every chemical flavor of the moment -- it is the work of the veterinary community, which operates in the shadows, hidden from public scrutiny. The industry has ignored or resisted years of suggestion that the attending veterinarian be included with other publicly disclosed information -- identified along with the trainer, owner and jockey. It is past time to implement disclosure of what could well be a most-enlightening bit of information too long denied to the public.

This is not a suggestion that trainers are without fault. But as long as their horses are running well and winning races, why upset the process by questioning the veterinarians? Speak no evil; hear no evil -- guilt by omission of inquiry, complicity veiled in convenient ignorance.

ITPP is an acronym for Myo-inositol-prispyrophosphate. Formulated in France, the drug causes the hemoglobin in blood to release oxygen in amounts substantially greater than normal, instantly enhancing physical performance -- a high-octane milkshake in a syringe. Currently and in the near term, there is no test available to regulatory laboratories that will detect the presence of ITPP in horses.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center and the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory are said to be aware of ITTP and other drugs currently in the underground pipeline with potential for abuse in horse racing and are prepared to begin work on development of testing procedures but lack funding.

If the perception -- and reality -- of medication abuse is important to the racing industry's leaders -- and the volume of verbiage expended on the subject would suggest that it is so -- the funding of proactive research would occupy a permanent position on the front burner, and the lack of such funding is, in itself, scandalous.

There will always be the next drug and people willing to exploit regulatory vulnerabilities. But in this particular race, it would benefit everyone involved to aggressively, and with some sense of purpose, press the pace.