As the two-inch needle is pushed into the dark bay’s neck, the startled filly steps back in mild protest.
“I know, I know,” veterinarian Gary Beck croons to the 2-year-old thoroughbred as he draws blood to be tested for doping. “There you go. You’re OK.”
Minutes earlier, the horse had finished second in that day’s fourth race at Santa Anita.
The scene is played out thousands of times a year at California’s 14 tracks, amid mounting suspicions of illegal drug use.
The testing, in fact, has become routine, expected.
That is changing.
In a significant shift, California has begun random testing of horses as a standard deterrent, the first state in the nation to do so. And it has a new weapon, a conclusive test for the banned human hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, a blood booster. The initial blood draws were made Oct. 19, and more were taken last week.
“We’re just going to show up,” said Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. “It’s going to be unpredictable, and that’s a real key to this. If you know I’m going to be coming around and testing on the 15th of every month, you’re going to find some way to get around it.”
With the Breeders’ Cup only days away, the $26-billion-a-year horse racing industry finds itself increasingly stung by accusations of drugs being used to enhance horses’ performances. Up to now, however, preset tests immediately before and after races haven’t turned up big numbers.
In California, many of the violations have involved illegal levels of therapeutic medications, often considered accidental. Since Jan. 1, 2003, there have been 93 serious violations out of nearly 100,000 tests. Twenty-three led to trainer suspensions ranging from seven days to a year, although penalties can be stiffer, depending on circumstances.
Clenbuterol, a stimulant used to treat respiratory ailments, was the most commonly abused drug -- 28 violations.
Officials also argue that, as in other pro sports, catching cheaters is tough without random, or out-of-competition, testing. Some drugs can be administered on race day but don’t show up immediately or, as in the case of EPO, the drug leaves the body quickly, yet its effects can last for more than two weeks
“It’s incumbent on us to make sure we’re using a level playing field,” said Richard B. Shapiro, CHRB chairman. “If somebody’s going to try something on the human athlete, those same types of people might say, ‘Maybe it’ll work on a horse.’ ”
Indeed, it is EPO and darbepoetin, or D-EPO, that are specifically targeted by the random testing. Perhaps most closely associated with the Tour de France’s drug woes, EPO increases an athlete’s endurance.
“I don’t think the problem is rampant,” Shapiro said of EPO. “I think there’s those few who may look for an edge. It’s a very few, but a very few is too many.”
Accelerating California’s move was the recent development at the University of Pennsylvania’s Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory of an EPO “fingerprint” test, providing what researchers say is absolute confirmation of the hormone’s presence. Before this, about a dozen states -- though not California -- would screen blood for antibodies that point to EPO. But it wasn’t foolproof.
Although one of the biggest drug problems involves “milkshakes” -- track slang for the illegal concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes that can make a champion out of a loser. The CHRB said prerace testing specifically targets this. A blood screening can detect high levels of total carbon dioxide, or TCO2, which is believed to increase a horse’s stamina.
Even so, about 800 other substances, including medicines that can jeopardize a horse’s health if abused, are put through the screening process.
Still, Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Assn., urges caution on out-of-competition testing, since it will also turn up violations involving therapeutic medications that often are unintentional and can be inconsequential if the horse isn’t racing any time soon.
“It’s a very tricky area. If a horse is just walking around the grounds with a drug in its system, what difference does it make?” he said. “The purpose of this testing is not to have the racing police sticking horses at all hours of the day.”
Arthur sees out-of-competition testing simply as rooting out cheaters who want to finish in the money.
“It lets people know it’s a new era, and that we’re going to be paying attention to this,” he said. “If we never have a positive, I would be happy. But we want people to know that what they see in the Racing Form is what they’re going to get.”
To be sure, drugs are an issue for all 38 states that sanction horse racing. However, statistics are scattered, making it hard to gauge the scope of the problem.
In New York last year, 56 drug tests came back positive; seven were EPO-related. Washington has screened for antibodies for two years, with no positive results. New Jersey has had two positive tests, Delaware one in three years. Other states, including Louisiana, are on the verge of following California’s lead.
A string of incidents this year underscored the need for unannounced testing. Among them:
* A California trainer asked a veterinarian if he could give his horses Aranesp, a darbepoetin-based drug for anemia. A peer in Florida had told the trainer that horses “run great on this and it is not detected.”
* The Food and Drug Administration informed the CHRB that a California veterinarian attempted to import a growth hormone for racetrack use.
* Oxyglobin, a banned synthetic blood-replacement agent, was brought into California with a horse running in a stakes race.
Ed Martin, president of the Assn. of Racing Commissioners International, calls California’s move groundbreaking.
“A lot of people have been talking about out-of-competition testing,” he said. “California’s the first out of the box on that, and I applaud them for it.”
Trainer Jeff Mullins, however, is wary.
“I don’t know what their goal is,” he said. “I’d want to know what they’re testing for before I agreed to anything.” Mullins has cause for concern. The CHRB filed a complaint against him last month after finding an excessive amount of mepivacaine in Robs Coin, who finished second in the seventh race at Hollywood Park on July 8.
Ingrid Fermin, CHRB executive director, knows there is discomfort about out-of-competition testing but stands firm.
“We’re not on a witch hunt or anything, but if you are doing anything, you’re duping the fans and you’re stealing from the other competitors,” she said. “If you still want to take your chances, then go ahead.”
Analyses of the first out-of-competition blood samples will not start until an additional $851,000 in funding for the CHRB is freed up by the state Legislature, something the agency expects in the next few weeks. That will boost its testing budget to $2.15 million, about $600,000 of which is earmarked for out-of-competition testing.
Arthur said there would be between 5,000 and 10,000 blood samples drawn for EPO-specific tests over the next nine months. He expects that when EPO is detected, multiyear suspensions will result. Stakes runners and, if necessary, entire barns will be targeted. Horses that win unexpectedly or trainers suspected of wrongdoing will get the most scrutiny.
“Suspect” is “a bad word,” says trainer Mike Mitchell.
His response is reflective of trainers who are understandably worried about being unjustly accused. CHRB rules state that trainers -- not the handlers, the veterinarians or the grooms -- are ultimately responsible for the care and condition of the horses.
“I think they’re going way too far,” Mitchell said. “I’ve raced all over the country, and this is the toughest testing you’ll find anywhere. To come out looking like our testing is bad, and everybody’s getting away with murder, it just isn’t right.”
Violations involving therapeutic medications are the sticking point. These drugs often are needed to maintain a horse’s health but, depending on when the drug is administered, can register beyond allowable levels.
The challenge is in determining intent.
Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg suspects intentional indiscretions occur regularly.
“It ain’t who the best trainers are, it’s who the best chemists are,” he said. “If you’re not a horseman, you don’t belong on the racetrack.”
Doug O’Neill, trainer of Breeders’ Cup contender Lava Man, knows he has been the subject of speculation.
“ ‘His nickname’s Drug O’Neill,’ I hear that,” he said.
The winningest trainer at the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita that ended Sunday had to run his horses out of a detention barn for 30 days over the summer after Wisdom Cat tested positive for TCO2 above the allowable limit. O’Neill has repeatedly denied he “milkshaked” the horse.
“I think the ones that are winning a lot of races are really under the microscope,” he said. “As long as testing is random and it’s fair, I think it’s great. But I think the technology is there to be fair and to touch everyone in the barn area.”
John C. Harris, a CHRB board member, is sympathetic to trainers’ concerns.
“I think it’s just human nature that some people are going to think it’s a wild-goose chase,” he said. “I don’t have any serious concerns of improprieties -- but I think we’ve got to prove it.”
Nick Zito, trainer of Breeders’ Cup Classic entry Sun King, is convinced a drug problem exists.
“Only a fool -- only a moron -- could think that nothing’s going on,” he said. “If you look at major sports, what do they say? ‘I don’t want to be left behind.’ Just a few bad apples will spoil everything.
“Is every baseball player on steroids? I hope not. Is every football player on something? I hope not. I’ll give the same answer about EPO in horse racing. I hope they’re all not on this.”
So do California racing officials.