Turning to Frogs for Illegal Aid in Horse Races
Racing regulators kept hearing the reports: trainers were giving their horses a powerful performance-enhancing potion drawn from the backs of a type of South American frog.
But for months postrace testing could not find the substance, a painkiller far more powerful than morphine. Then a lab in the Denver area tweaked its testing procedure, and in recent weeks more than 30 horses from four states have tested positive for the substance, dermorphin, which is suspected of helping horses run faster.
No trainer has yet been formally charged, although racing regulators expect that to happen soon. Because of its potency and ability to affect the outcome of a race, the use of dermorphin is considered to be one of the industry’s most serious drug violations.
“We hear about some pretty exotic stuff,” said Dr. Steven Barker, who directs the testing laboratory at Louisiana State University. “Frog juice — this is exotic.”
The discovery comes as the racing industry is struggling to counter perceptions of a pervasive drug culture. Indeed, dermorphin is the latest in a long list of illegal performance-enhancing drugs that have found their way onto racetracks. Cobra venom has also been used by trainers to deaden pain so that injured horses can race. It functions as a local nerve block, unlike dermorphin, a broader pain suppressant that is 40 times more powerful than morphine, Dr. Barker said.
If horses cannot feel their injuries, veterinarians say, they are more likely to run harder than they otherwise would.
Craig W. Stevens, a professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University who has studied dermorphin, said the substance makes animals “hyper.”
“For a racehorse, it would be beneficial,” he said. “The animal wouldn’t feel pain, and it would have feelings of excitation and euphoria.”
Mr. Stevens said dermorphin is found on the skin of a frog called Phyllomedusa sauvagei, commonly known as the waxy monkey tree frog, which is native to South America.
Dr. Barker said he suspected that most of the dermorphin had been artificially synthesized. “There’s a lot out there, and that would be an awful lot of frogs that would have to be squeezed,” he said, adding, “There are a lot of unemployed chemists out there.”
Other performance-enhancing drugs found in racehorses include those used to artificially bulk up cattle and pigs before slaughter.
“This is a tough issue,” said Edward J. Martin, president of Racing Commissioners International, a trade association for racing regulators. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game. As soon as you call out dermorphin, they will try something else. That is the daily battle that goes on.”
How often dermorphin is used in racing is not known — many states do not have the capability to test for it — but so far laboratories have found it in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Its use is also suspected in Texas. Some of the results were first reported on nola.com, the Web site of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
“This whole thing has really taken us by surprise,” said Charles A. Gardiner III, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time. We’re fighting back federal intervention. We’re under attack and losing our fan base. Fans believe that the sport is dirty, that there is cheating. And here we have an obvious attempt to cheat.”
In Louisiana, Mr. Gardiner said, 11 horses, both quarter horses and thoroughbreds, tested positive for dermorphin, though none of them broke down. He said two quarter horses in particular earned big purses. “A lot of money’s got to be given back,” he said.
Four thoroughbreds tested positive, with three finishing first and one second, all in races in May. “I’m sure that there are more positives across the country,” Mr. Gardiner said. “It’s not unusual that something isn’t being detected.”
Dr. Barker of the Louisiana State lab said 15 horses in Oklahoma had tested positive for dermorphin. Oklahoma officials declined to comment, as did racing regulators in Texas.
Vince Mares, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, said Tuesday that a California lab had found dermorphin in six postrace tests in New Mexico.
Industrial Laboratories in suburban Denver was the first lab to successfully identify dermorphin in postrace testing. It was not easy.
Petra Hartmann, director of direct testing services for the company, said clients relayed tips from racetrack workers that the frog secretion was being used, and later some seized materials turned out to be dermorphin.
“We identified dermorphin,” Ms. Hartmann said. “We knew it was out there.” But, she said, the lab’s test could not identify the drug in horses after they raced.
After racing regulators kept insisting that the substance was in use, “We went back to the drawing board,” Ms. Hartmann said. Industrial’s chief scientist subsequently developed a more sensitive test, specifically for this compound, she said.
“There is no resting in this business,” she said. “You are always chasing something, trying to determine what’s rumor, what’s real.”
Ms. Hartmann said she did not believe the use of dermorphin was widespread. “The vast majority of horsemen would never subject their horse to this kind of chemical experimentation,” she said.
Joe Drape contributed reporting.
Source: The New York Times
By WALT BOGDANICH and REBECCA R. RUIZ