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California expected to adopt mandatory milkshake testing
ARCADIA, Calif. - The issue of milkshaking has simmered for more than a year in California, but it was not until this past summer that a movement toward official testing kicked into high gear. Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board is expected to adopt a rule that mandates testing for alkalizing agents - the key ingredient in milkshakes, cocktails that are believed to enhance a horse's performance.
Racing officials and board employees say they became alarmed at a spike in the incidence of alleged milkshaking that took place at the beginning of Del Mar's meeting, according to tests that were conducted by the lab at the University of California at Davis at the request of Del Mar. The practice goes far beyond California. Thursday in New York, federal authorities indicted trainer Greg Martin for conspiracy related to a betting coup that involved the alleged milkshaking of a horse in December 2003 at Aqueduct.
The California numbers are sobering. According to racing board officials, only six horses had high readings of the test for alkalizing agents during a random, informational survey that was conducted statewide for the first six months of 2004. The tests, used to measure total carbon dioxide per liter of blood plasma, were conducted by the board in concert with the lab at Ohio State University. A high test level is considered to be 39 millimoles.
But through the first 10 days of Del Mar's meeting, an alarming 8 of 82 horses randomly tested - just short of 10 percent - were found to have milkshake readings above 39 millimoles, and 17 of 82 - more than 20 percent - had readings above 37 millimoles, the level at which a violation will be deemed to have taken place under the proposed rule.
Why the jump? In addition to a lab change, and a chain of command that bypassed the racing board's former executive director, Roy Wood, there was a slight lag before Del Mar decided to pay for the survey to continue. Track officials and board members now theorize that trainers, believing the racing board survey was over, might have become emboldened to try to gain an edge.
"Del Mar did it without an announcement," said Mike Marten, a spokesman for the board. "Maybe it caught people by surprise."
Renewed push for a rule
The word got out quickly, however, because through the final 33 days of Del Mar's meeting, only five horses had readings above 39 millimoles, compared with eight the first 10 days. Still, 13 of 184 samples - 7 percent - had readings above 39 millimoles. That compares to a rate of about "150 out of every 15,000 or 16,000 - about 1 percent - for too much Bute," a legal analgesic, according to Dr. Ron Jensen, the board's equine medical director.
The results convinced Del Mar management that the board needed to move toward a formal rule, a process that could reach the end zone Thursday.
"We urged the board that it needed to take remedial action with potential consequences," said Craig Fravel, Del Mar's executive vice president, who said Del Mar paid between $5,000 and $10,000 for the testing. "Even if it was not a rule, it's a criminal action to give a bicarbonate within 24 hours of a race. We didn't want trainers to think they weren't doing anything wrong."
Since the testing to that point was for informational purposes, the state board could not penalize anyone. No trainers were fined, no horses disqualified. But trainers whose horses had high readings were told by track management, track security, and racing board investigators of the results, and Del Mar placed security officers "at every stall of every horse in every graded stakes race from two to three weeks into the meet," Fravel said.
Since then - at Oak Tree's meeting at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park's fall meeting, and the current Santa Anita meeting - language has been added to stall applications informing trainers that if they have positive tests for milkshakes, they will be subject to discipline by the track, under what is known as a house rule. The house rule was intended as a substitute until the passage of the racing board's formal rule.
Positives at Hollywood almost nil
"The goal has been to stop violations. That's what we did," said Rick Baedeker, the president of Hollywood Park. At Hollywood's fall meeting, "It was less than 1 percent of the horses tested," he said. The violators were subject to "extra surveillance and security," Baedeker said.
At Oak Tree, which follows Del Mar on the calendar, there was also improvement. Every horse - except one that was not cooperative - was tested before every race. Of the 1,773 tested, there were only eight violations among six trainers, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, a veterinarian who is on the Oak Tree board.
"All six trainers were in the top 25 of our meet," said Arthur, who refused to divulge those six names. Horses trained by all six were subsequently subject to race-day surveillance. Arthur said there were no violations among any trainer the last five days of the meet.
"Oak Tree notified the trainers, and the numbers came down," Jensen said.
Arthur said that Dr. Scott Stanley, who runs the Ken Maddy lab at UC-Davis, offered to analyze the feed used by the six trainers. Only one accepted and was found to be giving alkalizing agents in the feed.
California racing has been awash with talk for years that trainers might be crossing the line, and the talk has spawned animosity in the stable area and cynicism among horseplayers.
"The whole key is performance that is predictable. That's why people bet," Arthur said. "I'll tell you one thing we haven't seen lately - those unbelievable improvements of horses after being claimed."
Effort applauded by many trainers
Many trainers are cheering the developments.
"The effort has to be ongoing," said trainer John Sadler. "Look at the results. It looks like real racing again."
John Shirreffs won just 3 of 78 starts at Hollywood Park and Del Mar last summer. But after Oak Tree became the first association to say it would penalize trainers for milkshakes, Shirreffs started winning again. At Oak Tree and the Hollywood fall meeting, Shirreffs was 11 for 36. Why did he start winning?
"I think you know," said Shirreffs, who has a squeaky-clean reputation.
Not everyone has been comfortable with the process, however. Jeff Mullins, who was the leading trainer at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park last year, acknowledged that he is one of the trainers who was informed of positive tests.
"They've done some flaky [stuff] to me that they haven't been able to prove," Mullins said. "At Hollywood Park, I was told I had two positives for bicarbonates, but they never produced a lab report."
Mullins's statistics have slipped since last summer. At Del Mar, he won with 21 of his first 62 starters, but went 3 for 31 the last three weeks of the meet. He won 18 of 109 races (16 percent) at Oak Tree and the Hollywood fall meeting, compared with 82 wins in 285 starts (34 percent) last year at Santa Anita's winter meeting and Hollywood's spring meeting.
Mullins said his slump has coincided with a spate of injuries suffered by many of his best horses, including Choctaw Nation, beginning in the latter part of Del Mar. He said he has not been winning with the same frequency because he is starting inferior stock.
Media outlets petitioned the racing board, under the California Public Records Act, for the names of trainers whose horses allegedly tested positive for milkshakes. The board initially seemed inclined to release the information, and sent notices to trainers alerting them the data would be made public. A deputy attorney general, however, subsequently offered an opinion that since the tests were confidential, and therefore no complaint could be filed against trainers by the board, it would be a violation of that confidentiality to release the names.
Mike Mitchell acknowledged that he was one of the trainers who got a notice. Signed by Wendy Voss, the board's public records officer, it listed four horses "trained by you . . . that had TCO2 [total carbon dioxide] levels greater than 37 millimoles" - one at Hollywood Park in April, two at Del Mar in August, and one at Oak Tree in October.
Mitchell said he was angry the information came close to being released, believing it was unfair, since trainers never had due process to try to refute the charges.
Lack of split sample is one flaw
Indeed, one of the potential hurdles with the proposed rule that will be debated at the racing board's meeting Thursday is that milkshake testing will not allow for confirmation of a split sample. In all other medication violations, confirmation of a split sample is needed before the board will go forward and bring charges.
"The nature of carbon dioxide in the blood is that it dissipates rapidly," Jensen said. "It falls significantly after four or five days. A split sample takes longer than that."
In addition to the board's proposed rule, state law must be changed to allow for a specific exemption of split samples for milkshake testing. That legislation is being sponsored by state assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) whose district includes Hollywood Park. It is expected to pass.
- additional reporting by Steve Andersen