Updated on 09/17/2011 10:15AM

Texans see EPO as potential killer


When looking for testimony on the dangers of pumping EPO (erythropoietin) and worse into horses, a retired gynecologist deep in the heart of Texas may seem a strange source.

Horse owners everywhere should listen to this one, however.

I was so intrigued by a letter that Dr. Richard D. Weilburg wrote to The Blood-Horse about the dangers of EPO that I gave him a call in Fredricksburg, a little boutique town about 65 miles from San Antonio that is a tourist attraction and a great place to retire. Dr. Weilburg settled there on his small working farm when he left his Houston medical practice five years ago.

Sixty-five miles is a stroll in the park in Texas, and Dr. Weilburg makes the trip frequently from Fredricksburg to Retama Park to see his Thoroughbreds run. He has five of them, two of his own and three with partners, with a trainer - Edward Webb - who dislikes illegal medication as much as does Dr. Weilburg.

So does Lane Hutchins, the horseman responsible for Dr. Weilburg's conversion from Thoroughbred hunters and jumpers to Thoroughbred runners.

Dr. Weilburg's interest in horses goes back 30 years, his interest in runners just a year and a half. That's been long enough, however, for him to learn about things like EPO.

Although he was a gynecologist and not a hematologist, Dr. Weilburg knew about blood-clotting from his practice, and he decided to learn more. He turned to a blood specialist friend, and did his own research. One of the things he found was that thickening of blood, which is one of the effects of EPO, can lead to stroke and death, in humans and in horses.

It can because of its sludging effect, especially if there is dehydration, either natural from exercise or induced from the use of a diuretic like Lasix. The combination of both can be lethal.

Dr. Weilburg also found that at least 15 European professional cyclists died in the 1980's and 1990's from the polycythemic, or sludging, effects of EPO. He says the same effect in horses is "a scenario for tragedy." Horses can suffer strokes just as humans do, and can drop in an instant if they do. No pictures need be drawn.

Dr. Weilburg realizes that the present Maylin-McKeever test for EPO antibodies is only a first step on the road, and requires out-of-competition testing to validate its findings. He thinks it every bit as important as another present-day inconvenience, security searches at airports.

It is interesting that another Texan, who knows racing well and writes eloquently about it, also thinks EPO is a threat that calls for decisive action. Gary West, the articulate racing journalist of the Dallas Morning News, thinks horses showing EPO antibodies should be barred from racing until they do not. That could entail three months or longer, which sounds reasonable, since antibodies in this case indicate trauma and internal insult to natural-occurring EPO, and the horse should be given a chance to recover by being placed on a vet's list.

There is nothing funny about illegal medication in any form, but some humor of a sort crept into the subject recently when Bob Baffert complained that lack of uniform medication rules was the villain in the costly clenbuterol disqualification of Kafwain in the Louisiana Derby. Kafwain came up with a 16.3-nanogram-per-milliliter positive in the most liberal clenbuterol jurisdiction in the country, a week after Baffert says administration was stopped. Louisiana suggests a three-day cutoff and then allows 10 nanograms. Baffert's normal hunting grounds in California allow only 5. So Kafwain's 16.3 a week after administration would have uniformly blown the top off clenbuterol rules anywhere in the country, not just in Louisiana, and still was - a week after administration - more than three times the permissible level of California.

Dr. Weilburg's warnings, and excessive positives like Kafwain's, make it clear that the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has a lot of work ahead.

For one thing, unless racing commissions, which write the rules in this country, agree to abide uniformly by the consortium's findings - which they have given no indication of doing as yet - the consortium is blowing smoke. It can confer and write all the recommendations it wants, but it has no power to enact rules that govern racing in this country.

And unless it earmarks a major portion of its substantial treasury to independent research on finding the scourge of American racing - undetectable drugs - it will be wasting both funds and talent. Uniformity can only solve problems if scientists can catch up with the chemists - errant horsemen and veterinarians - currently destroying the sport from within.