THE best-known doper of this century rode on two wheels. But horses, as well as humans, can be drugged to enhance or tarnish their performance. This month eight people linked to a now-defunct racing stable in Australia were found guilty of charges related to the doping of horses over seven years from 2010. One prominent trainer, Robert Smerdon, and two of his stable hands were banned for life. They had administered illegal “top-ups” of sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda, which reduces the buildup of lactic acid in muscles, allowing horses to run for longer without tiring. A state authority called it the worst scandal in Australia’s racing history. What, then, is equine doping?
Some potions, such as tranquilisers, calm highly strung horses. Others are meant to speed them up. Roman chariot racers were said to have nurtured their steeds with honeyed water. By the early 20th century, thoroughbreds were fuelled with rather stronger stuff: caffeine and cocaine. Trainers have since experimented with Viagra, energising opioids, drugs that dilate airways, and unlicensed concoctions such as “blue magic”, which is thought to boost cardiovascular function. Racehorses are injected with EPO, the blood-doping hormone that undid Lance Armstrong, and fed cobalt, which also increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Several trainers have been sanctioned for dosing horses with anabolic steroids, which can make them stronger and faster over the long-term, not just on a race day.
Other drugs are meant to numb the aches felt by injured animals. These include exotic options such as cobra venom, which acts as a nerve-blocking agent. In 2012 trainers in America were found to be administering “frog juice”, a pain-suppressant 40 times more powerful than morphine, and so-called because it was traditionally drawn from the back of a South American amphibian. Vets particularly dislike this kind of cheating because lame mounts can do fatal damage to themselves and riders. In 2012 an investigation by the New York Times found that a rising number of horses were breaking down at American races, and alleged that doping was the cause. It noted that some tracks had introduced casino-style gambling operations, which increased the stakes and encouraged trainers to race unfit animals.
It is difficult to tell how widespread these misdemeanours are, because testing is far from universal. Some drugs, like EPO, are hard to spot, since they disappear quickly from the system. As in any sport, regulators must play catch-up with crooked chemists; and in some places, they are accused of weak enforcement. Yet their powers have grown in recent years, allowing them to surprise trainers with tests at stables. So has their scientific armoury. Using hair samples, labs can identify illegal substances which disappear quickly from blood and urine. Scientists in several countries are developing equine “biological passports”, similar to those used by human athletes. Scott Stanley of the University of California, Davis, says that by identifying abnormalities, regulators could apply further tests to suspicious stables. He believes that doping in horse racing is no longer “as rampant as a lot of people believe”. Still, with cash and credibility at stake, unscrupulous players will game the system. That much, you can bet on.