The History of Drugs in America

So, you’ve had it with drugs and wish racing was like it used to be – just hay, oats, and water. Well, we hate to disillusion anyone, but America was never the way it used to be.

From its very beginning, racing in America has been plagued by drugs, most of them a great deal more potent than the ones that have received all the headlines the past several years.

All the inconsistencies in drug policy that we’re experiencing now are nothing new to the sport. With race-day medication rules about to go through a major change, it is a good time to go back and look at its roots.

The innocence of the 1960s was rudely disrupted in 1968, about the same time America was experiencing its own drug renaissance. We can still see the large, bold-faced headlines in a major New York tabloid – “Derby Winner Drugged.”

That was the day a relatively unknown analgesic called phenylbutazone, marketed under the name Butazolidan, entered the racing vernacular and shook up the entire sport. It also would become the first of many inconsistencies when dealing with medication.

On May 4, 1968, Dancer’s Image finished first in the Kentucky Derby, defeating Calumet Farm’s Forward Pass. Two days later, chemist Kenneth Smith reported to Churchill Downs stewards that the post-race urine sample taken from the winner had come up positive for Butazolidan.

On May 7, Churchill Downs officials announced the findings, and following three days of hearings, Dancer’s Image was disqualified, and the redistribution of the purse money was ordered. The colt’s owner, Peter Fuller, appealed the ruling in late 1968, but it was upheld by the Kentucky State Racing Commission. Fuller then appealed to Franklin Circuit Court, and Judge Henry Meigs ruled in Fuller’s favor, holding that there was no substantial evidence to prove the presence of Butazolidan.

The Kentucky Racing Commission, under pressure from Calumet owner Mrs. Eugene Markey, appealed the decision to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, who ruled in favor of the commission in April, 1972. In June of that year, after being refused a petition for a rehearing, Fuller reluctantly gave up his appeal to have the purse money reinstated. One year later, Fuller lost his final battle when the court denied his appeal to have Dancer’s Image recognized at the official winner of the Derby.

After five years of court battles and $250,000 in legal fees, Fuller finally gave up the fight. Less than a year later, in March, 1974, the Kentucky Racing Commission legalized Butazolidan.

By April, 1975, Butazolidan, which was first synthesized in a Swiss laboratory in 1946 and eventually produced by the Jensen-Salsbery Laboratories in Kansas City in 1957, and the diuretic, furosemide (known by its trade name Lasix) were legal in 12 states. On April 14 of 1975, the Eastern edition of the Daily Racing Form began listing the names of all horses at Gulfstream Park who were racing on “Bute” and Lasix. A few days later, Keystone and Pimlico were added when those drugs became legal in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The first state to actually allow the controlled use of medication was California. In Oct. 1970, with Butazolidan legal only in Nebraska and Colorado, a three-man board adopted a measure that permitted the use of Bute up to, but not including the day on which a horse was to race, specifying that the use must be approved by the state veterinarian and also must be shown on the required daily veterinarian’s list.

As the use of Bute and Lasix became more prominent, statistical reports regarding size of fields, breakdowns, and form reversals increased, but proved inconclusive. Three major reports by the Veterinary-Chemist Advisory Committee to the racing organization NASRC (National Association of State Racing Commissioners) and the California and Colorado racing boards all came to the conclusion that a controlled medication program does not affect the normal breakdown rate of horses. In 1976, the California board received the approval of the American Humane Society.

But that didn’t stop the outcries from the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which claimed that Butazolidan was a masking agent for prohibited medications; a claim that would also apply to Lasix.

Bute and Lasix also took the blame for an increase in breakdowns. Veteran jockey Herb Hinojosa was quoted in the Horseman’s Journal of June, 1978 as saying, “The horses are taking a dive. They evidently have no feeling when they break down. Right now the important thing seems to be filling the races and not ask questions.”

Nick Jemas, managing director of the Jockeys’ Guild, was quoted in that same issue, commenting, “From the reports I’ve been getting, more horses seem to be breaking down with shattering-type injuries than ever before.” Jemas, however, was of the belief that it was a mistake to blame Butazolidan and Lasix when the real offenders were much stronger drugs, such as methodone, xylocaine, reserpine, dilaudid, and the main culprit, Sublimaze.

Sold to humans as Fentanyl, Sublimaze was a low-dosage, high therapeutic-effect drug of the narcotic-analgesic group. It was described as a rapid-working narcotic, and of short duration. Dr. George Maylin, associate professor of toxicology at Cornell University and head of its drug testing program, described Sublimaze as a drug that gave a horse such a sense of well-being, stating “they don’t know they have legs on them.”

Finally, in 1979, a test for Sublimaze was discovered. But soon after, a new drug surfaced called Stadol. After only a few months on the market, Stadol was detected in the horse Quill Prince, who had finished first at Aqueduct. That led to a 45-day suspension of the horse’s trainer Pete Ferriola. More new drugs continued to appear for which there was no test.

On May, 13, 1979, racing took a major blow, in much the same manner it has this year, when “60 Minutes” aired a segment that painted a frightening picture of drug abuse in America, which included films of spills at various tracks. Although the show was criticized by racing officials as being sensationalistic journalism, it made a powerful impact on those who saw it.

Racing retaliated by tearing the show’s statistics to shreds. The segment had Americans believing that 80% of the horses racing in this country did so with the benefit of harsh drugs. However, it neglected to report that in 1978 there were 135,000 horse races in America, involving more than 1.2 million starters. Statistics from the NASCRC showed that were only 303 cases of major medication violations, which averaged out to one violation for every 3,960 starters.

A major breakthrough in drug prevention came in July, 1979 when Finger Lakes Racetrack in upstate New York introduced pre-race testing, which began daily at 7:30 a.m. when a state appointed veterinarian accompanied by an identifier went through the stable area extracting blood samples from horses entered to race that day. Just 10 days after its initial use, the first horse, a 5-year-old gelding named Refican, was detected as having a foreign substance in his blood and was ordered scratched by the stewards.

Despite the tumultuous decade from Dancer’s Image to the “60 Minutes” segment, the problem of drugs in America was tame compared to years past. Back then, it was racing’s dirty little secret and brought out a number of unsavory, but Runyonesque, characters.

Before the advent of saliva testing in the 1930s, drug incidents went pretty much unnoticed or were ignored. It was because of this malaise and ignorance that few reports of drug-related incidents could be found. A well-known English authority once claimed that Americans started the practice of doping and eventually brought it across the Atlantic, where many Englishmen picked it up.

Americans, however, claimed that drugs actually originated in England and France. This was substantiated by Professor J.B. Robertson, who stated in the Sporting Chronicle that both sedative drugs and stimulants were given to racehorses as far back as the time of James I. He also stated that in 1750, the leaves of the cocoa plant reached Europe from Peru and were administered to racehorses as a stimulant, along with cocaine, one of its alkaloids, and caffeine. This occurrence was in practice before the coming of the Americans in 1895, although it did become much more widespread after that date.

Drugs first showed up in America just about that time and were sold openly under the euphemistic name of “Speed Sustaining Elixir.” The elixir was publicly advertised in several turf publications under that name, and very often the salesman would administer it himself and direct the treatment of the horse. The one thing that remained a secret, even to the salesman, was the ingredients. All everyone knew was that it came from “across the water” and that it had proved effective in England and France before being imported to the States. The creator of the formula supposedly was a French chemist who first tried it out in his native land before passing it on to the English. After the elixir reached America, there were numerous incidents of horses “going loco” from the drug or its many imitations, and it soon became known as the “dope evil.”

Through the years, the doping of horses became more systematized and scientific, and racing officials admitted that stamping it out would be as difficult as eliminating the human use of alcohol.

By 1930, one of the more popular drugs to administer to horses was heroin. Although lethal in large doses, horses were able to tolerate it due to its addictive qualities. The use of heroin on the backstretch lured a number of unsavory characters, mainly addicts hoping to get a fix. One such character was “Railroad Red,” who would go from to barn, serving as a guinea pig to test the purity of the heroin before it was given to the horses. For years, trainers used Railroad Red’s services. Red eventually got tired of the routine and decided to go straight. He locked himself in a barn loft for three days and went “cold turkey.” Although he never touched the stuff again, he turned to liquor as a substitute and became a drunk.

On Aug. 13, 1931 at Saratoga, an incident took place that would have a profound effect on the sport. A Rancocas Stable horse named Ladana was given a sedative and hypnotic called Chloral before the running of the Burnt Hills Handicap, for which she was going to be favored. A stablehand confessed to the act, but the trainer was held “absolutely responsible” for the care and safety of the horse and he was banned from entering any horses for the remainder of the meet. That decision gave birth to the absolute insurer rule, which holds a trainer responsible for everything that occurs in his barn.

By 1933, drug incidents in America had escalated to new heights, but a new era was about to begin in the field of drug testing. In early 1934, the first big breakthrough came at a meeting of the NASRC when Joseph E. Widener, builder of Hialeah and a leading figure in New York racing, offered to send Florida Racing Commission chemist Charles E. Morgan and veterinarian J. Garland Catlett to France to make a detailed study of the saliva testing that was being used in that country.

A modified version of the French testing procedures had already proved successful in Florida that winter, resulting in the suspensions of several trainers. Unlike France, where every winner was tested, Morgan only took samples of horses who showed by their actions the possible use of stimulants. On May 8 of that year, the NASRC passed the resolution endorsing the use of the saliva test. Morgan and Dr. Catlett then returned to France later that year, bringing back newer drug testing methods, including a more reliable test for detecting the presence of cocaine.

From 1935 to 1936, trainer suspensions dropped from 82 to 23. During the winter of 1937-38, Dr. Catlett began testing the urine of greyhounds to further enhance drug testing procedures. His testing proved successful and he presented his findings to the New York State Racing Commission. They were so impressed with the findings they provided the funding to continue the experiment on horses.

After extensive research and experimenting on horses, who were administered drugs and then observed and clocked on the track in the morning, it was determined that the saliva tests detected the presence of drugs in all cases administered orally, but was less successful detecting drugs that were administered by hypodermic. The urine test, however, not only detected the presence of drugs in both methods of administration, but also in cases where the dosage was as minute as one-tenth of a grain.

The one drawback to the urine testing was that the sample was not as easily attained as it was in the saliva test. Normally, horses will pass urine from a few minutes to an hour after cooling out, but in one instance at Hialeah, in which a horse won and paid $196, the assistant was forced to wait in the stall until 9 o’clock that night. There was another case in which an inspector had to wait over nine hours for the horse to urinate.

In 1941, the urine test made national headlines when it uncovered a number of caffeine positives at Hollywood Park. It wasn’t the positives themselves that created the uproar as much as the owners of the horses involved, the most notable being MGM head Louis B. Mayer, Harry L. Warner, and William Leavitt Brann. On June 14 of that year, California board chairman Jerry Geisler summoned 11 owners of nine individual racing stables to a hearing to investigate the rash of caffeine positives. A month later, the commission suspended five trainers and cleared all owners.

It was later discovered that the “guilty” parties actually were the grooms, who had refused to wait hours for their horse to urinate. To quicken the proceedings they urinated in the cups themselves, thus making the source of the caffeine, not a pill or hypodermic, but a coffee pot in the track kitchen.

Over the years, new names cropped up, such as clenbuterol and Erythropoietin (more commonly known as EPO). The latter is a synthetic hormone that increases the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This drug was determined to be performance enhancing and also proved fatal in some instances. Clenbuterol is a decongestant and bronchodilator that makes breathing easier and helps build muscle mass. Earlier this year, the California board began discussions to prohibit the drug from appearing in post-race tests. Currently, clenbuterol is permitted to appear in post-race tests up to a limit of 5 nanograms in urine and 25 picograms of blood.

Major changes are in store in racing, with the Breeders’ Cup voting to ban the use of Lasix for 2-year-olds competing in the 2012 event and ban all race-day drugs in 2013.

To demonstrate how little things have changed, in 1981, Illinois announced it was banning drugs. Dave Feldman, president of the Chicago HBPA (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) issued a statement, saying, “It was the worst decision I have ever heard of a racing board making. Horses become cheap because they have problems. Bute and Lasix help alleviate some of these problems. Without such medication, there will be countless sore horses trying to race at Illinois tracks, particularly late in the season. This will be chaos for horse players.”

As long as horses race and new drugs infiltrate the market, there are going to medication controversies. The drug-testing procedures have improved significantly over the years, but need to be consistent throughout the country and need to keep up with the designer drugs that are being produced in second and third generation form.

Racing is not only a sport, employing thousands upon thousands of people and generating huge sums of revenue, it also is a business. It is not easy separating morality from practicality, thus making it difficult for racing jurisdictions searching for the correct solution. Although economics is a major part of racing, the decision makers must realize that beyond the morass of conflicting motivations, such as attendance, mutuel handle, political gain, and financial solvency, is the Thoroughbred, without whom all else in meaningless.

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