Are we ever going to get serious about drug testing in American racing?

Lance Armstrong: he never failed a drug test, yet the overwhelming consensus is that his performances were fueled by the illegal use of drugs. Photo:

There is absolutely nothing new in this Op-Ed piece. The fact that it needs to be written again is the story.

The endoscope has been around ever since Dr. Alex Harthill brought one to Churchill Downs for the first time in the late 1960s.

For several years the scope has been the main diagnostic window to the throat of a horse.

But, once a horse could be scoped while in motion, whether on a treadmill or by use of the “dynamic” or “overground” scope, use of the standing scope has been rendered virtually useless in detecting deficiencies in the breathing of a racehorse.

Today, and for the last several years, testing of horses’ blood, urine and hair have been thought of by professionals and lay people alike as the foolproof method of drug detection.

Then came the BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) scandal and with it the revelation to most of us that designer drugs had consigned standard drug testing to the same ineffectiveness as the standing scope.

Propelled by a rocket fuel

A designer drug alters the molecular structure of a drug enough to make its presence impossible to detect unless one knows what to test for.

So, when human sprinters, for example, were registering personal bests while testing clean, and a player wearing increasingly larger cap sizes belted prodigious numbers of baseballs out of the park, they were in fact being propelled by a rocket fuel whose identity was unknown to the testers.

Then one day in the mail, a package containing a syringe with rocket fuel residue arrived at the offices of a leading United States Olympic chemist, who was able to develop a test that blew the lid off the world of drug testing.

The test the chemist developed made it possible for that particular substance used by cheating athletes to be detected. The chemist was Don Catlin and the drug was THG.

So the lesson was heard loud and clear among athletes, chemists and regulators around the world of sport — known drugs can continue to be detected, but unknown designer drugs were undetectable unless a test had been developed.

Cheating conducted at the highest level

Yet, today in horse racing, the chatter and focus remain on traditional drug testing.

Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and Flo-Jo never failed a drug test as far as I know, yet the overwhelming consensus among those deeply ingrained in their sports is that the performances of these famous athletes were fueled by the illegal use of drugs.

Today in racing, there is abundant reason to believe that cheating is being conducted at the highest level of the game. Yet very little, if anything, is being done to detect it.

As far as I can tell, there is no regulatory body that is actively involved in conducting investigations aimed at detecting cheating by uncovering physical evidence of illegal substances for which tests can be developed.

Instead, those few jurisdictions that have any interest in this project at all are busy collecting hair and fluid samples.

It seems painfully obvious to this observer that the lessons of the BALCO scandal have either been ignored or misunderstood.

Lack of motivation

I think, at best, only lip service is being paid to finding out who is cheating and what they are using.

The lack of motivation on the part of regulatory bodies in racing is most likely a result of outdated thinking that public exposure of a famous cheater would damage the image of racing. In fact, only when a celebrity trainer is caught, adjudicated and thrown out of the game will any deterrent be developed to clean up our sport.

Right now talk of cheating at the highest level has never been louder among those who own, train, watch and gamble; yet precious little, if any, heed is paid by those charged with maintaining the integrity of our sport.

If a full effort was made to expose cheating and none was found, I can speak for myself and thousands of participants in the game by saying that we would all be relieved to learn that our sport was clean and we could move forward in the knowledge that our sport is well regulated.

However, if cheating does exist, the quicker we purge the backstretch and frontside of owners, vets, trainers and their enablers who cheat, the sooner we can right the ship and move forward.

Bringing racing out of the shadows

Exposing the designer-steroid-fueled home run hitters did not derail Major League Baseball. Cycling took a temporary hit when Lance Armstrong was outed from the sport, but it has returned to prominence again.

Racing has always been looked upon with skepticism by general sports fans and the public, so a cleaning up likely would be seen not as proof of this shadiness, but as an effort to bring the game out of the shadows and into the sunlight.

Many years ago, when I was the first to write about getting the United States Anti-Doping Agency involved in horse racing, it was based on a record as an independent outfit with investigatory skills that would be motivated to clean up our sport.

Because the state regulators were disinterested in doing their job, I thought USADA was the answer to finding an honest broker to do the job the regulators did not understand.

Lack of support from owners

Today that situation had not changed.

I see very little hope that any federal legislation will ever be passed to install USADA as the overseer of drugs in racing in America. One reason is a lack of full-throated support and enthusiasm from owners — the one group that should be backing this initiative above all others.

With the exception of those anti-drug advocates that have joined the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), the bulk of owners have been sold a bill of goods by their trainers and have focused more on keeping their stock on medication instead of realizing they are being cheated out of earnings by a small group of crooks.

There is an elite group of owners, populated in part by a bunch of wealthy people, that by and large think they are overburdened by federal regulation in their business lives and they damn sure are not going to let the Feds take over their beloved hobby of horse racing.

So, as I see it, we have a simple choice: keep testing for drugs without the regulators knowing exactly what they are testing for, or hire somebody like USADA to conduct police investigations in order to uncover designer drugs and root evil out of the game that so many profess to love.

Are we ever going to get serious in America? The entire world is watching.

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