With so many racing jurisdictions, NYRA among them, implementing milkshakes tests, it's starting to get harder for the bad guys to cheat. But not hard enough.
The sports deserves some credit for the steps it has taken in the wake of the milkshaking and money laundering scandal that rocked Aqueduct last month. Several states have started testing for milkshakes or are in the process of developing tests. In New York, urine samples will be frozen and the labs will be able to take a look at them down the road once better tests are developed. The sport has put some effort and money into developing improved testing procedures and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association has fought to have all graded stakes races subject to the most sophisticated drug testing means available.
Still, it's discouraging that the industry hasn't done a lot more to combat the problem of performance-enhancing drugs or any other sort of junk trainers and veterinarians are tossing into their horse's systems to make them run like the wind. Milkshake tests must be seen as one small step in a battle that will not be won unless the sport takes every step possible. So far, that isn't happening.
The new tests being implemented at NYRA, Santa Anita, Gulfstream and elsewhere (shame on those tracks that aren't going to test for milkshakes) will likely stop one problem, but one problem only. Milkshake use was so bad that 10 percent of the horses tested last year during a trial period at Del Mar were positive for alkalizing agents, the key ingredient in a milkshake cocktail.
But milkshakes are just one of dozens of weapons the cheaters have to juice their horses. There are numerous drugs out there that can improve performance, and many of them are undetectable. That's the root of the problem. The bad guys come up with new performance-enhancing drugs all the time and the good guys developing the tests can't keep up with them. If a trainer or a veterinarian knows there is no test for the drug they are using, they know they can pump as much of the junk into a horse as they want and get away with it every time. Likely, that will always be the case.
The most useful tactic tracks have is surveillance. If someone is watching a suspected cheat and his or her horses 24-7, they can't get away with any nonsense. But racing seems afraid to use this weapon, either because it is too cheap to pay the costs involved or it doesn't have the backbone to take on trainers, especially the more prominent ones.
It can't be that hard. Harness racing, which has taken the drug menace far more seriously than thoroughbred racing has, has made very effective use of detention barns. Horses are required to go to a special barn either 24 or 48 hours before they race and they are watched every minute. Detention barns are used for roughly 90 percent of all stakes races in harness racing. Some harness tracks also use detention barns on a random basis, choosing two or three races a night after the entries are drawn.
Yet, the thoroughbred game has made almost no effort to put a detention barn system in place. At the very least, they should be required for all graded stakes races.
Surveillance cameras should also be installed in barns. Put four or five located in key spots around someone's barn and keep an eye on them around the clock. That's going to make it a lot harder for someone to sneak into a stall and inject a horse with who knows what.
Penalties must also be increased and more pressure must be put on owners and veterinarians. As things stand now, only a trainer is penalized when a horse tests positive for something prohibited and the penalties are usually laughably light. Not only is a trainer typically given nothing more than a 60 or 90-day suspension, but there is nothing in place to stop them from turning their horses over to an assistant while they can still do a lot of the training work from outside the gates. It's not much of a deterrent.
Owners have to be held responsible, as well. These guys aren't stupid. They know who is cheating and who isn't and a lot of owners are all too willing to give their horses to a juicer knowing their going to win a lot of races for them. When a horse is caught running on something illegal, suspend the horse, as well. Bar them from racing for, say, 120 days, and watch how many owners start looking for more honest trainers.
Many people believe the real culprits are veterinarians, the ones actually dispensing the drugs. As things now stand, there is very little accountability in regard to vets. Every time a horse is entered, a trainer should be required to put down the name of the veterinarian that is treating the horse. If some vet's name keeps popping up in connection with horse after horse that records a stunning form reversal then track security will know it had better start asking some questions and putting some pressure on that vet.
For too long, racing has simply looked the other way, hoping the problem would just go away. That's not going to happen. Never has the drug issue been more front and center and never before has the sport's integrity been so widely questioned. Does horse racing really want to end the use of illegal drugs? We shall see.