Day At The Track

The greatest scandal of recent times

05:00 AM 13 Jan 2018 NZDT
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Robert Smerdon
Robert Smerdon - 115 charges were laid against him and stable employees
AAP Photo

Since the 17th century man has dabbled in making the racing horse go faster. Methods were simple: shouting, brandy was the best tipple for speed, stamina and courage, or a lick of caffeine.

Now milkshakes, spiced with sodium bicarbonate, also known as TCO2, are the flavour of the month, with the whiff of Vicks VapoRub , contributing to one of our greatest drug scandals of recent times.

Yes, the cobalt debacle in the south figures prominently but the 271 charges laid this week by Racing Victoria stewards against trainers, including 115 fired at the prominent Robert Smerdon, and stable employees over a considerable period makes it a standout.

Yesterday Smerdon and another trainer involved Stuart Webb agreed to stand down pending hearing.

Aquanita Racing, billed on its internet site as "one of Australia's largest racing operations, with five trainers over three locations", has past and present connections with those charged, but no other involvement in the issue.

Smerdon has been charged with being "a party to the administration of alkalising agents and/or medications to a horse or horses on a race day" from 2010 until last year.

Thus milkshaking is a focal point. Sodium bicarbonate is legal when used at times outside race day threshold treatment periods, and Smerdon has won countless races without the hint of the inappropriate recipe.

For instance, Nature Strip, prepared by him, bolted in at Sandown on Wednesday for his third win from four attempts and contributing to Smerdon's 43 successes this season.

Aquagate opened with the scratching of Smerdon's Lovani from a Flemington event prior to racing last October when stewards suspected treatment in breach of the rules.

"Milkshaking is a mixture of baking soda, sugar and water. The concoction is designed to reduce the build-up of lactic acid," Andrew Beyer, the esteemed US turf scribe, described in 1999 in a piece "Milkshakes leave a bitter taste".

The potency of milkshakes has been questioned so the opinion of Thomas Tobin, author of Drugs and the Performance Horse, was researched.

"Another approach to the improvement of performance is to render a horse's blood more alkaline than usual by the administration of sodium carbonate," he wrote. "This method is effective because formation of lactic acid by working muscle and its accumulation in the blood plays an important part of signs of fatigue".

Like cobalt, milkshakes were tried and tested successfully in harness racing before making the big time but were regarded as beneficial only in staying races.

Fortunately for one the greats of our time, with no connection to Aquagate, frozen milkshake samples don't stand up to testing now. The gelding's TCO2 reading, like his ability, was sky high. In those days officialdom was more inclined to issue a private warning rather than public scandal in the best interest of the turf.

But seemingly simple treatment, such Vicks, can create havoc, and appears in the charge sheet of the Aquagate, relating to the administration of it to the nose of a horse at Bendigo in 2012.

Remember Aliysa in the English Oaks in 1989? Aliysa, owned by the Aga Khan, returned a positive to camphor, the Vicks ingredient. The filly lost the Oaks and British racing lost the Aga Khan for four years in retaliation.

"It appears that camphor in the horse is not likely to have any useful stimulating actions and its standing in equine medicine should probably be close to human medicine which is just about zero," Tobin opined.

A simple mouth wash before the race was long odds-on to bring Tierce undone after he scored in the 1991 Golden Slipper at Rosehill. Tierce proved positive to lignocaine contained in the rinse.

In one of the most controversial decisions regarding a positive sample, Australian Jockey Club stewards under John Schreck decreed it "did not affect performance" and took no action against the colt.

"It is the best decision that could have been given, an excellent one, a courageous one," the late Percy Sykes, the legendary horse doctor, declared.

"The analysts are working on the basis that everything is black and white and that is wrong. What I would like to see brought in is a body of practical professionals to assist stewards in that grey area …."

By Max Presnell

Reprinted with permission of The Brisbane Times

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