09/20/2013 1:28PM

Deluded trainers using diluted drugs


LEXINGTON. Ky. – Over the past several years, U.S. drug-testing officials and chemists have increasingly sought to procure substances that have been rumored to be administered to racehorses on race day or in out-of-competition environments in clear violation of the sport’s rules. They’ve sent the substances on to labs for analyses to determine their active ingredients and their likely impacts on racing performance.

There’s some bad news about that, and there’s some good news.

First, the bad news: Anecdotal evidence and recent regulatory actions appear to indicate that trainers are indeed using the substances on race day and while training, and that the substances are going undetected in post-race tests.

Now, the good news: The stuff doesn’t work.

The findings have created a conundrum for cash-strapped organizations like the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium that are seeking to develop costly tests to detect illicit medications. Should funding be used to develop tests to detect substances that are innocuous and have no performance-enhancing impact but are still being administered illegally on race day, to the detriment of developing tests that could find the next generation of actual performance-enhancing drugs?

“That’s the big question,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director of the RMTC. “What they are doing is illegal, and we feel like we should have an ability to crack down on it. But that means we might not be able to do something else.”

The latest substance to crop up in the conversation is Sarapin (which can go by a number of spellings), a natural substance derived from the pitcher plant that is marketed as a pain block. In documents detailing an investigation into a veterinarian’s illegal raceday administration of the substance to a horse trained by Jane Cibelli at Tampa Bay Downs, the veterinarian, Orlando Paraliticci, who was banned from the track and received a 90-day suspension, said that he administered the substance to relieve pain in the horse’s splint.

Multiple laboratory studies of the substance have shown that Sarapin has absolutely no effect on mitigating pain, in either horses or humans. Yet a drug-testing laboratory in England is currently analyzing products containing the substance to determine whether it can be detected in post-race tests, saying that “in recent years Sarapin-related products have been found more frequently in the equine competition world,” according to an abstract for the study presented at an international conference of analytical chemists in 2012.

The Sarapin-related products have dozens of cousins sold on online sites that are marketed as performance-enhancing substances capable of being administered up to four hours prior to post time without being detected. Regulators have procured and analyzed a handful of the products – including one that purports to contain the enormously expensive performance-enhancing substance ITPP – and have found that they are nothing more than the equine equivalent of snake oil.

At least one part of the marketers’ claims appears to be true – the tests won’t return a positive on the substances no matter when they are administered. And that’s because they don’t contain anything illegal or anything that actually works.

So it appears to be the case that many of the sport’s would-be cheaters are actually being cheated themselves.

“A lot of this stuff is bull----,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, in a recent interview. “There are probably trainers out there who think they are using ITPP, and they aren’t. It says ITPP on the label, but it’s just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and isn’t even illegal. You have to keep chasing it, but there’s just so much nonsense out there, it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not.”

Benson, who spent a portion of her early career as an assistant to a practicing racetrack vet, said that trainers often ask for raceday treatments that the veterinarian knows will have no impact on the horse’s physiology or performance. The veterinarian gets to bill for the administration of the substance – often under the table – and no one gets caught. Meanwhile, the trainer doesn’t want to give up on something that competitors might also be using, so the cycle repeats itself.

“We used to say those things were for the trainer, not for the horse,” Benson said.

The most notorious marketer of substances with dubious if not outright deceptive claims is a website called horseprerace.com that, among legal therapeutics, sells dozens of substances with names like Lightning Injection, Super Shot, and Liquid Aranesp, which swipes a trademarked name for the blood-doper darbepoetin. Liquid Aranesp promises to deliver a “supplemental source of vitamins and amino acids,” which is not remotely close to what darbepoetin does.

The same site sells a neon-blue product, Blast Off Extreme Injection, that is said on the label to contain “myo-inositol trisprophosphate,” a similar spelling for the chemical name of the ITPP molecule. The description says the substance “may increase the force of heart-muscle contraction.” However, chemists who have tested the substance say that it does not contain the full ITPP molecule, according to Dr. Rick Sams, director of the HFL Sports Science lab in Lexington, but rather amino-acid snippets of it. It’s got the parts, but is far less than the whole, and completely ineffective.

The site sells a bottle containing six and half times the recommended dose for $40, which should be a sure-fire signal to any veterinarian or trainer that the substance is fraudulent, considering the difficulty in manufacturing the real ITPP molecule and its rarity.

Emails sent to a contact address at horseprerace.com have gone unanswered for a month.

“The RMTC recently got sent what was supposed to be cone-snail venom” – a powerful peptide painkiller – “and it was just a bunch of amino acids too,” Arthur said. “And yet the guy who was using it said that it was the best cone-snail venom he’d ever used.”

Several months ago, the RMTC sent a notice to racing commissions to add two substances, Purple Pain and TB-500, to the list of Class A medications, which are those substances that are considered to have no therapeutic use in a horse. Purple Pain is marketed as a painkiller, whereas TB-500 is marketed as a muscle builder, even though both substances are considered ineffective.

Benson said that classifying and developing tests for the substances can have an ancillary impact that is beneficial to racing, in that it might educate horsemen about the danger of believing claims about miracle substances.

“The RMTC is actively engaged in trying to identify these substances in order to determine which are true threats,” Benson said, “and dispel beliefs regarding those which have no effects.”