Updated on 09/15/2011 2:38PM

EPO: A story full of holes


TUCSON, Ariz. - Erythropoietin - EPO - has arrived in English horse racing, or at least in the coverage of racing in the English press, which is having a holiday ball with it. Unfortunately for racing, when English journalistic bulldogs get hold of a juicy story, they do not let it shake loose.

The story started with a well-known trainer, Charlie Mann, who said he is fed up with racing uphill against guys racing downhill using EPO. He said horses were running on it "every day."

EPO is a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells, which can enhance athletic endurance and speed. EPO is banned by most sports, including horse racing, but the extent of its use is uncertain because of the lack of a widely accepted test to detect it.

An Australian vet, Dr. Tom Ahern, who has practiced for 23 years in nine countries, and who is a specialist in equine respiratory problems, told England's Racing Post that horses suffering from such problems benefit the most from EPO. He said that opinion is based partly on his experience in western Australia, where he says EPO has been used "fairly widely." He also said he felt EPO may have "unjustly propelled the careers of some trainers."

No! Really?

The charges brought immediate indignation from Britain's chief testing vet, Dr. Peter Webbon, and from leading figures in the racing press, who invoked the standard response that such charges were professional jealousy on the part of less successful trainers and shortcomings on the part of unsuccessful bettors.

Dr. Webbon implied that Britain and France have tests for EPO, a remarkable statement given the fact that the rest of the world is still looking for a way to test for it. Webbon said, "I've constantly heard and read that there isn't a test and I've always wondered where that came from because we never say what we do or don't test for, and most people can see the reason for that. Certainly I can say horses that are trained in this country have been tested for EPO. There have been no positives."

Racing journalist Brough Scott in the Sunday Telegraph called on Charlie Mann, who had made the original charges that exploded in the press, to either put up or shut up. Scott wrote, "Either he should be commended for breaking the biggest scandal in a hundred years or he should be charged with bringing racing into disrepute." Mann is not some down-and-out hacker. Greg Wood, writing in the London Independent, described him as "talented and upwardly mobile." Wood also said, commenting on EPO, that "in the long term, what evidence there is suggests that it might have severe, and quite possibly fatal, side effects."

At the risk of heresy, I think Dr. Webbon should put up or shut up. He implied that he has a test, but he must know that American researchers and others worldwide have been looking for one for years, futilely. If he and the French have a test, why not share it with their scientific colleagues. Science is supposed to be universal.

Another leading veterinary figure in the horse world of the British Isles, Des Leadon, head of the Irish Equine Centre, joined other officials in scoffing at even the possibility of widespread EPO use. He called them "Harry Potter" tales, saying, "They perpetuate the blind belief that some guru of the needle can come along totally ignorant of the science of pharmacokinetics [the study of drug distribution through the body] and consistently enhance the performance of an animal bred to be an athlete for 200 years. The equine athlete and the human athlete are completely different. If you try to give a horse human EPO it is likely to be very dangerous. The idea that this is happening 'every day' is absolute garbage."

If Dr. Leadon thinks all trainers are totally ignorant of the science of pharmacokinetics he is kidding himself. And if he thinks because it is likely to be dangerous, some people would stop using EPO, he is naive. If he wants to come over, we'll introduce him to the trainer in Jersey (New Jersey, not the old English one) who was a brief meteor on the harness scene for a season, until investigators found 200 vials of EPO at his training center and the state removed him, not gently, from the racing scene.

In this country, the Association of Racing Commissioners International has declared administration of EPO "a prohibited practice," although declining to declare it a Class 1 drug because of the absence of a test.

Surely Dr. Webbon should be willing to give the scientists in the colonies the secret. Let's give him a call, and perhaps we can stop all this nonsense.