02/14/2005 12:00AM

Milkshake detection goes past bicarbonate


With horses from two trainers in California already testing positive for excessive total carbon-dioxide levels in the blood, the definition of a milkshake is rapidly expanding, drug-testing officials said Monday.

Milkshakes have typically been defined as concoctions of sodium bicarbonate and other substances that are usually pumped into a horse's stomach. But on Monday, several officials acknowledged that a horse's blood test could show an excessive level of total carbon dioxide through the administration of widely available supplements, which is the contention of the two California trainers, Vladimir Cerin and Jeff Mullins, who have had horses test positive.

"We've always thought of a milkshake as sodium bicarbonate," said Dr. Mike Weber, the manager of veterinary services for the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Authority. "But that's just one thing on an indefinite list of alkalinizing agents. The important thing to remember is that you do not have to put a stomach tube in a horse and put in baking soda. It can be many things."

In California, and in other racing jurisdictions currently testing for alkalinizing agents such as milkshakes, any blood sample with a total carbon-dioxide level above 37 millimoles per liter of blood plasma is considered a positive. Although racing officials say that the level could be exceeded with a wide variety of administrations, all agree that a horse with a total carbon-dioxide level in excess of 37 millimoles is being significantly affected by alkalinizing agents and, therefore, should not be racing. Alkalinizing agents, which are chemical bases, neutralize lactic acid in the muscles, potentially staving off fatigue.

"I think a lot of people are saying, 'Tough luck,' " said Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, in reference to the positives in California. "If we all agree that anything above 37 millimoles means that you have an advantage, it doesn't matter how you get above 37. You just need to be careful with what you use on a daily basis."

Waterman said that there are "hundreds" of over-the-counter supplements produced for horses that potentially contain alkalinizing agents that would produce effects similar to those of a typical milkshake administration. He cautioned trainers to scrutinize closely the supplements they give horses because of the potential of having a horse test positive.

"We're just starting to learn this by doing, since the supplement industry isn't required to go through the rigorous investigative process" required by the Food and Drug Administration, Waterman said. "It's one of the dangers of supplementation, in human or equine athletes. Lots of times we don't know what's in these things, and lots of times there aren't even lists of ingredients."

On Wednesday, the New York Racing Association will begin testing for alkalinizing agents at Aqueduct, using the 37-millimole threshold level. As in California, the rules do not address how the alkalinizing agent was delivered, only the effect on a horse's total carbon-dioxide level in the blood.

NYRA's rules also have extraordinarily tough penalties attached to a positive. On a first positive, a trainer must send all his horses who are entered to race to a NYRA-monitored barn by 5 p.m. on the day before the race. On the second offense, the trainer will be barred from racing a horse at a NYRA track ever again.

Dr. George Maylin, who runs the lab at Cornell University in New York for the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, said that a principal component of the new testing program will be to discover how horses are coming up with positives. As a result, he said that the testing program "will not drop the guillotine all at once," but would likely issue confidential warnings to trainers with first positives as the lab collects its data.

"Getting the blood here to the lab and the testing, unlike most other forms of testing, is the really simple part," Maylin said on Monday. "Analyzing them and understanding what's going on in the [training] population, to me, that is the big problem."

Charlie Hayward, the chief executive at NYRA, would not comment on NYRA's enforcement policies for the new test, but said, "Dr. Maylin's going to be interpreting the positives for us, so we're going to leave it to him."

Weber predicted that trainers likely will have a rash of positives in the first few weeks of any new testing program. But he said that the problem of alkalinizing agents in supplements would shake out sooner rather than later, because of the pressures of being called for a positive and suffering through the negative publicity.

"As you start testing for total carbon dioxide, the population in the industry - trainers or whomever - they sort it out, they ask questions," Weber said. "I know that if I was training a horse, I'd ask my veterinarian, I'd ask somebody, is there a possibility that the supplement I'm giving, in the amount I'm giving, will affect [total carbon-dioxide] levels? That's how it's going to have to come about."