“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”)

We’ve long known that bad trainers will inject practically any substance to make their horses move faster. Cobra venom, cocaine, Viagra, yes, but last year, a new dope du jour surfaced in at least four states – pharmaceutical name, dermorphin, but owing to its amphibian origin, “frog juice” will suffice.

Here’s the thing, though, this Class 1 drug is 40 times more powerful than morphine. 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 rabid, exactly what you want in an animal whip-forced to run at breakneck speed.

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On a single day in May 2012, 8 New Mexico Quarter Horses tested positive for dermorphin after running trial heats for the lucrative All American Futurity. In Louisiana, 11 horses (from 9 different trainers). Oklahoma, 15. And in Nebraska, trainer Kim Veerhusen was suspended for doping his befittingly named Cheatin Cowboy with the opioid.

Jeffrey Heath Reed was one of the naughty New Mexicans. But while awaiting a second-lab verification, he was allowed to continue racing. Three months later, two of his charges broke down and died competing in another round of Futurity heats. One, 2-year-old Jess a Zoomin, was among the frog-juiced in May. Reed’s suspension at last arrived that fall. For this miscreant masquerading as a professional, the final count included four dermorphin positives (a fifth, Jess a Zoomin’s, was dismissed on a technicality) and two for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.

The picture below was snapped after Reed was suspended. He holds a koozie from “Racing Free,” an organization committed to eliminating illegal doping. Wow.

photo credit: Paulick Report
photo credit: Paulick Report

Furosemide, or Lasix, is used, ostensibly, to control pulmonary bleeding in rapidly moving racehorses. But it is also a powerful diuretic that causes the horse to shed water weight (and helps flush the system) prior to the race. To the rest of the world (excepting Canada), U.S. horseracing is derelict in allowing raceday Lasix (in practically all starters). But according to American trainers, the rest of the world is wrong.

Prominent trainer Dale Romans starts with this premise (Paulick Report, 9/13/12): “Racing causes EXERCISE INDUCED pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH, respiratory bleeding) in 100% of horses.” So, for the good of the horse, it must be controlled. Enter Lasix, which, Roman says, decreases the incidence and severity of this “natural” condition and “has no harmful effects.” See, the drug is therapeutic, indeed humane. And, notes Romans, since all trainers have access to it, none are afforded a competitive advantage.

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Prohibiting Lasix, in Romans’ estimation, would lead to methods antithetical to equine welfare – like withholding water prior to a race: “It is my firm belief that one of the worst abuses that can be done to the racing horse is to ban Lasix.” Adds his colleague Rick Violette (DRF, 8/11/11), “Horses bleed. That is a fact. To force an animal to race without it is premeditated, borderline animal abuse.”

What Romans and Violette conveniently ignore, however, is that the level of natural bleeding that adversely affects the Thoroughbred, a 3 or 4 on a 1-4 scale, is rare and bleeding through the nostrils even rarer (perhaps 1%). So to say it’s more therapeutic than performance-enhancing is dubious.

But what if Romans is right about EIPH being innate (and painful) to the racing horse? If so, then the animal abuse that Violette speaks of is at racing’s very core: Horsemen are ever eager to proclaim racing as innocuous – horses are born to run, love to run; the ubiquitous whip is but a painless “guide.” But here, according to Romans et al., the fundamental act (racing) causes equine suffering (through bleeding). Is there another sport on the planet whose primary physical motion is inherently painful? Absurd.

On January 27th of this year, Dr. Orlando Paraliticci, a private vet working for trainer Jane Cibelli, was caught injecting a nerve block, called “P Bloc,” into the Cibelli-trained horse Raven Train. Raven Train was scheduled to run that day in a $16,000 claiming race. According to the Paulick Report, “Paraliticci quickly left the stall, saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.'” Paraliticci was banned from Tampa Bay Downs (TBD) on February 3rd and eventually (May 15th) suspended 90 days by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (FDPMW). Eight months later, Cibelli has finally been disciplined.

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Cibelli’s punishment is a 60-day Florida suspension and dismissal from TBD for the remainder of the meet. Implied here, is that Cibelli’s personal relationship with TBD official Margo Flynn was an impediment to immediate justice, at least at the racetrack itself. In defending the meager sentence, the state says that without a syringe or positive blood test – “a nerve block administered in this fashion is not likely to produce a positive test” – it had to rely solely on Paraliticci’s word. But when Paraliticci indicted both himself and his employer, he had to have known that the state lacked any evidence beyond a witness to some unspecified injection. It seems, then, that his word – admitting guilt when he probably didn’t have to – should have been at least as damning as a dirty syringe.

For deadening a horse’s leg on raceday, the guilty parties received two and three months. At the very least, TBD is a corrupt venue. At the very least, the FDPMW is a weak regulatory agency. At the very least, Dr. Orlando Paraliticci is devoid of professional ethics. And at the very least, Jane Cibelli is unconscionably negligent. But because everyone in racing knows that vets do the trainers’ bidding, especially one with as forceful a personality as hers, Cibelli is most likely an animal abuser. Reid Nagle, a Cibelli colleague who is outraged by this case, suggests that if this were England, Cibelli would be banned for life. Sorry, not good enough. Jane Cibelli should be in jail.

A recent Daily Racing Form article (9/20/13) suggests that the pervasive doping in horseracing has a silver lining. Well, sort of. First, the bad news: trainers, of course, are dumping illegal junk into their horses, and because labs are always playing catch-up, much of it is hard to detect. But the good news, at least for a publication most concerned with the integrity of the bet, is that some of the drugs – or drug knock-offs – “are nothing more than the equine equivalent of snake oil.”

The California Horse Racing Board’s Dr. Rick Arthur: “A lot of this stuff is bull—-. There are probably trainers out there who think they are using ITPP [an illegal performance-enhancer], and they aren’t. It says ITPP on the label, but it’s just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and isn’t even illegal.”

The “stuff” – legal and otherwise, effective and otherwise – can be easily found at sites like horseprerace.com. But the products – “Green Speed,” “Lightning Injection,” “Blast Off Ice” – and ridiculously low prices should prompt caveat emptor. Arthur: “The RMTC recently got sent what was supposed to be cone-snail venom [a painkiller], and it was just a bunch of amino acids. And yet the guy who was using it said that it was the best cone-snail venom he’d ever used.” Pity the gullible cheating trainer, for he is being cheated himself.

blast off ice

So now racing officials must decide whether or not to expend tight resources developing tests for drugs that don’t enhance performance. Dr. Dionne Benson of the RMTC: “That’s the big question. What they are doing is illegal, and we feel like we should have an ability to crack down on it. But that means we might not be able to do something else.” In other words, we know you’re trying to cheat, but no edge no foul. Not surprisingly, the DRF has nothing to say on how this dummy dope may affect a horse’s long-term health. In racing, what passes for ethics is cracking down on the drugs that make horses run faster. For that would be unfair.