07/05/2007 11:00PM

Preventing venom use 'difficult'

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Facts about cobra venom that many people in horse racing probably do not know: It's easy for a veterinarian to obtain. It's legal to possess. There is very little hope of devising a test to detect its administration any time soon.

Cobra venom is a powerful neurotoxin that acts as a painkiller when administered in small quantities. Although its use with horses has been the subject of backstretch speculation for years, the topic is now being more widely discussed because of the alleged discovery of the substance in the barn of Patrick Biancone, the Kentucky-based trainer, after a search at Keeneland Racecourse two weeks ago.

The use of a highly toxic substance in order to win a horse race may seem paradoxical, but the chemical structure of cobra venom makes it an effective painkiller when administered under the skin in very small quantities. By deadening the nerves that lead from the source of pain to the brain, cobra venom can allow a horse to ignore physical problems and run through them, officials say. It is believed to be effective only when administered within four hours of a race.

Although little evidence has emerged that the substance is in widespread use, racing officials said this week that there is also little evidence to dispute the likelihood that cobra venom is being abused. In fact, a trainer or veterinarian who uses cobra venom is almost certainly aware that the racing industry has no means to detect it. And although only one company in the United States is widely known to sell the substance - Miami Serpentarium Laboratories in Florida - veterinarians can legally purchase cobra venom simply by having their license validated.

More revelations may be on the way. Just one month before the search of Biancone's barn, two harness trainers, William Barrack, 68, and his son, Keith Barrack, 42, entered guilty pleas in a case in which they were accused of administering cobra venom to a Standardbred horse before a race at Saratoga Raceway in New York last October. The guilty pleas are believed to be the first involving the use of cobra venom in horse racing and were obtained after law-enforcement officials gathered evidence through wiretaps. According to Saratoga County's district attorney, James Murphy, the wiretaps revealed that the Barracks were trafficking cobra venom to people in New York and beyond.

"It reached well beyond the borders of Saratoga, into other counties and other states," Murphy said. "We passed all the relevant information to law-enforcement officials in those locations, and I have every reason to believe that investigations are ongoing."

The possession of cobra venom is not a crime, although every major racing jurisdiction has banned its use. Cobra venom is not classified as a controlled substance by the Food and Drug Administration, and there are no laws that would prohibit someone from using the substance as long as a crime is not committed.

Murphy said the lack of laws about the use of cobra venom complicated the prosecution of the Barracks.

"It was a real problem initially, because you couldn't prosecute it under existing public health laws," Murphy said. "Possession is not a crime. But once you administer it to a racehorse, then you can use interfering with a domestic animal or race-fixing or those laws. And that's what we did."

The Barracks pleaded guilty to one felony charge each of interfering with a domestic animal, which could bring a maximum penalty of four years in prison when they are sentenced on Aug. 31.

Racing laboratories do not have a test for cobra venom, in part because only an extremely small dose is required, according to Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an industry-funded group that issues recommendations on drug regulations and sponsors research into drug-related issues. Since a test to detect the substance would have to be sensitive enough to find an almost negligible amount in either the blood or urine, racing officials said that such a test is likely well beyond existing technology.

In fact, the consortium declined to fund several research projects based on devising such a test in the past two years, Waterman said.

"We felt that the researchers needed to go back and look at their projects," Waterman said, "and that moved them down the ranks" on the list of research proposals the consortium could sponsor.

Researchers can easily obtain snake venom from Miami Serpentarium Laboratories, which has been selling venom since 1947. Its founder, William Haast, is considered a pioneer in the field, and from 1947 until 1985, the laboratory doubled as a tourist attraction. Visitors could watch as Haast milked venomous snakes by forcing open their jaws and getting the snakes to strike a thin membrane covering a test tube.

Nancy Haast, the administrator of the laboratory, said that the company sells venom only to researchers, universities, and veterinarians. The venom has been used to research everything from a polio cure to cancer treatment, and anti-venom snakebite serums can be produced only from a sample of the venom itself. The venom is sold by the milligram, and veterinarians need only to provide a license, which the company checks to see it is valid.

"Our policy is that we don't sell to anyone off the street," Haast said. "We could. I don't think there are any laws. It's such a specialty biochemical field."

Cobra venom appears to be distinct among snake venoms. Most other snake venoms are not neurotoxins, but rather poisons that affect the cardiovascular system or the localized area of the bite. The Miami serpentarium sells cobra venom for approximately $60 a milligram, Haast said. Since the exact dosage for a horse is unclear, it is uncertain how much a specific cobra venom shot would cost.

"We don't know dosages, we don't know any of that stuff, and we tell anyone who buys it, this is not a pharmaceutical product," Haast said. "This is not sterile. This is not to be used as medicine. We sell venom for research only, and we are very careful to make that very clear."

Murphy, the Saratoga district attorney, said the wiretaps in the case indicated that the Barracks received their venom from a source in Florida. Murphy said, however, that the exact source was never determined. Haast said she believed that independent producers of venom are probably common in Florida, given its climate, which is conducive to raising reptiles. Haast said that although the laboratory obtains most of its venoms from snakes that are on site, "we have suppliers that are literally around the world."

Marketed cobra venom typically comes in a crystallized form. The poison is converted into an injectable by mixing a small sample in a saline solution. But once the mix is made, the potency of the venom quickly degrades.

Waterman said that racing's only plausible option for detecting cobra venom is to conduct barn searches, since the substance can be easily identified in the crystallized form. But aside from that tactic - which courts have typically found to be heavy-handed - racing has little hope of catching someone who is determined to cheat.

"I don't think we're throwing up our hands or ignoring it," Waterman said. "But when you look closely at it, it's a very difficult problem."