Meet Todd Pletcher, Thoroughbred trainer. 5-time Eclipse winner, 10-time top guy at Saratoga, 7-time highest American earner (over $250 million lifetime), Mr. Pletcher also owns a Kentucky Derby and a pair of Belmont Stakes trophies. Raised around tracks and tutored by the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, the smart and business-savvy Pletcher seems well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Yet amid all the accolades, another part of his story needs telling.

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In August 2004, the Pletcher-trained Tales of Glory tested positive for Class 2 mepivacaine after a win in Saratoga. He was suspended 45 days.

After an October 2008 BC race, his Wait a While was found to have more than 300 times the allowable limit of Class 3 procaine in her system. In defense, Mr. Pletcher, through his vet, said the “overage” came from a weeks-old granuloma (which formed after treating a fever) that ruptured and released the trapped drug during the race. The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) practically called this ridiculous. More likely, it said, Wait a While was given another shot(s) of procaine closer to raceday, perhaps within 48 hours. But since there was no proof that Pletcher ordered or knew of it (imagine that), he was handed a 10-day suspension. Wait a While, then 5, never ran again. Final fate unknown.

In February 2010, two of Pletcher’s horses (Obligingly, Quality Road) tested positive for omeprazole sulfide at Gulfstream Park. He was “reprimanded.” On February 25th, 2012, Pletcher’s 4-year-old Coronado Heights, who had been diagnosed with early degenerative joint disease, broke down at Aqueduct and was subsequently killed. The New York Times ran this graphic on the multiple injections administered to Coronado Heights the week before his death.

In its report on the 2008 incident, the CHRB said: “It is impossible to overstate the damage that drug violations in Breeders’ Cup races can do to the integrity of the sport of thoroughbred horse racing. This is no longer the 1930’s when the Sport of Kings seemed invincible.” But on the other hand, Mr. Pletcher has had “a stellar 15 year career.” Verdict: 10 days. Anyone who still asserts that horse welfare – genuine concern for the equines beyond their ability to race – is an industry priority is either dishonest or delusional.

“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

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.

This from California’s Del Mar on August 24th:

“Shortly after the third race was run the Stewards received notification from Safety Steward Luis Jauregui that when he was pulling up in front of the Receiving Barn he noticed an individual from the Doug O’Neill barn, which is situated across from the Receiving Barn, enter the stall of a horse with a detention sign on the door and administer a product into its mouth. He confronted the person, who turned out to be the foreman, and confiscated the tube, which had the brand name CB2A and contained amino acids, which are illegal to give on race day. The horse turned out to be Cinco de Mario, which was scheduled to run in the fifth race. Mr. O’Neill was informed of the situation and told that the horse would have to be scratched.”

The supplement, commonly used to boost energy, is permitted “until 24 hours of the post time.” O’Neill’s foreman gave it to the three-year-old gelding less than an hour before his race. This, of course, is not the first time “Dougie’s” been mentioned here. O’Neill’s response? (Paulick Report, 9/1/13) “It was a human error. My foreman was supposed to give it to Handsome Mike, who was running the next day.” Hmm. Remember, the horse’s stall was adorned with a “detention” sign.

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Either O’Neill is lying and intended to cheat or he runs a grossly incompetent ship. Given his track record, probably the former. While an amino acid supplement is certainly not the worst they do to horses, it is raceday illegal for a reason. O’Neill awaits his hearing.

Tim Wilkin is a fine sportswriter, even if one of his duties is to cover horseracing for the Albany Times Union. (Of course, horseracing is as out of place on the Sports pages as blowing away Whitetails in autumn.) But his latest contribution (“Loss Leaves Empty Feeling,” 8/27/13) on the aftermath of Sunday’s 9th race in Saratoga almost seems written with the express purpose of eliciting sympathy for those at the heart of this exploitative business. Pity the poor horseman, for he so loved his former charge.

Wilkin on Charlie LoPresti, trainer of the late Kris Royal: “His heart was breaking because of stall 16. It was empty. Kris Royal, a 5-year-old chestnut gelding who was there on Sunday, was gone on Monday.” Little, Wilkin says, can “soothe [LoPresti’s] aching heart.” And LoPresti himself: “It just makes you sad, number one, because he’s just a neat little horse if you knew him. If you look there and you see his empty stall … what a nice little horse to be around … a fun little guy … he never bothered anybody … he tried. It really makes you rethink what you do. I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘It didn’t really happen, did it?'”

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Perhaps, Wilkin writes, the rain-starved fast turf was simply too much for these horses. LoPresti, however, magnanimously refuses to blame anyone. His “fun little guy” just took a “bad step,” “hit a rough spot.” But if you delve a little deeper, certainly far beyond what this article is willing to reveal, you’ll find the root of snapped Thoroughbred legs everywhere: $2 bets and the resultant pots of gold that men like LoPresti relentlessly chase. The tragedy here, is horseracing itself.