By Patrick Battuello,
In Behalf of Animals
There is a frog in South America whose venom is a cure
For all the suffering that mankind must endure
More powerful than morphine and soothing as the rain
A frog in South America has the antidote for pain
(Paul Simon, “Senorita With a Necklace of Tears”)
Move over cobra venom and Viagra and make way for the latest and greatest drug to hit horserace town. Technically, it is called dermorphin, but because it comes from the back of a South American amphibian, “frog juice” will work just fine. But here’s the thing, this Class 1 (most dangerous) dope du jour is 40 times more powerful than morphine. That’s right, 40 times. So, not only does it (obviously) obliterate pain, but as Oklahoma State professor of pharmacology Craig Stevens tells The New York Times (6/19/12), it also causes the horse to “have feelings of excitation and euphoria.” Numb and hyper, exactly what you want in an animal whip-forced to run at breakneck speed. The depravity of trainers seeking an edge seemingly knows no bounds.
As Racing Commissioners International president Edward Martin readily admits, “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.” And Dr. George Maylin from NYS’s testing lab adds (NYT, 3/24/12), “They are pharmacist shops. Nobody has any control over what they are doing.” So far, dermorphin has reared its head in at least four states, though more will surely follow as testing catches up.
On a single day this past May, 8 New Mexico Quarter Horses running trial heats for the upcoming $2 million Futurity tested positive for dermorphin. And in Louisiana, 11 horses from 9 different trainers. Apparently grasping the gravity, Louisiana Racing Commission director Charles Gardiner says (NYT, 6/19/12):
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.
Oklahoma has seen at least 15 positives, and in Nebraska, trainer Kim Veerhusen was recently suspended for doping his befittingly named Cheatin Cowboy with the opioid. With 11 previous pharmaceutical violations (second in 2012), Mr. Veerhusen, who has amassed almost $1.5 million in a brief eight-year career, received a six-week suspension and $1,500 fine.
The call to radically alter horseracing’s structure by creating a national governing body to supplant the erratic and often beholden state racing commissions intensifies with each new embarrassing disclosure. The wish list includes national licensing, uniform doping standards and testing, and perhaps most importantly, a single set of deterrent-caliber penalties. Unsurprisingly, the alarms are mostly being sounded from within this increasingly unpopular, artificially propped (racinos) industry.
At a July Senate committee hearing, Barry Irwin, owner of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, said (NYT, 7/12/12)
State racing commissions, with few exceptions, do a lousy job of identifying cheaters, investigating them and adjudicating them. …So cheaters cheat, sometimes they get caught, but too many that do wriggle off the hook.
Some, like track owner Jeffrey Gural, suggest that anything short of criminal prosecution (“If some of these trainers walked out of the barn in handcuffs…”) is (will be) futile, which only further underscores the industry’s desperate state.
Still, even the reform-minded Irwin cannot help but betray his core conviction when discussing his beloved sport: “We need to stop drugging thoroughbred racehorses in order to make them the beast of burden that will carry our industry on its back. We should be celebrating this glorious athlete, not trashing it.”
How, pray tell, does one “celebrate” another sentient being while simultaneously exploiting him for money and fame? Would you, could you, Mr. Irwin, refer to any other athlete in any other sport as a “beast of burden”? In the end, all their talk of house-cleaning is mere window dressing, for sometimes the whole roach-infested building needs to be razed and the space left forever vacant.