Day At The Track

Cohen: New drugs are here-what can be done?

06:07 AM 16 Sep 2010 NZST
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Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

A new type of blood-doping drug, informally called ITPP, according to several sources, has likely found its way into our horses and our sport. Could its growing use and presence, undetectable through current testing protocols, help explain the precipitous drop in perceived racing integrity over the past year or so?

It is a question that earnest and honest industry scientists are ready to begin to answer for us—if only our industry would give them the money to do so.

ITPP is short for Myo-inositol-prispyrophosphate (NormOxys), a drug new enough that scientists are having trouble purchasing it legally for testing. Created in France in 2005, the drug makes the hemoglobin in blood release more of its oxygen, enhancing physical performance in a swift and powerful way. To date, there is no test available to regulatory laboratories that can effectively and consistently detect the presence of ITPP in any animal, including horses, which is why the scientific community that cares about these sorts of matters has come together, bravely and finally, to sound the alarm. As is often the case, law and order have a ways to go to catch up with what they are chasing.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory, including the renowned Dr. Lawrence R. Soma, are standing by to bolster racing integrity by neutralizing ITPP and another relatively new drug, called AICAR, which is rife with potential for abuse in horse racing. But, for starters, they desperately need approximately $50,000 for equipment and synthesizing costs in tackling the ITPP project. Consider this their indirect request for money from the industry.

Dr. Soma told me via email last week: “We need more funding to really approach the problem and attempt a solution…It may be an easy molecule to detect… once a method is developed.” Their “multi-group effort,” Soma told me, involves such notable industry experts as Dr. Cornelius Uboh and, from New York, Dr. George Maylin. The Racing and Medication/Testing Consortium’s new fellowship program also has pitched in; allowing Dr. Mary Robinson, a post-doctoral fellow in equine pharmacology, to join the investigative team.

This is no case of bureaucratic excess or infighting. Soma and Company already have submitted an initial proposal to the RMTC and say they have a “plan” in place to learn enough about the essence of ITPP to be able to accurately detect its presence—and thus eventually preclude its effective use at the track. The RMTC, generally supportive of such studies, will likely (and thankfully) endorse the work—AICAR and ITPP, after all, could usher in the most significant drug problem in horse racing since EPO a decade ago. But the doctors, the scientists, the men and women who want to help us, need the money now to begin to get the job done.

Over the past few months, and despite their unanimity of purpose, the scientists haven’t blitzed the media world with news of their need for research funding on such a hot topic. I don’t know why they’ve dropped the ball in this fashion. And I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Through the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission, there has been some funding for the New Bolton work. For example, horsemen and horsewomen represented by the state’s three harness tracks currently contribute. And there are plenty of other organizations in and around Pennsylvania who also contribute to the Racing Commission for this purpose. But the scientists need more money and they need it now.

Going forward, there is no doubt in my mind that the big breeders in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York and Kentucky will pony up (again) to help get the doctors going. Perhaps there is also money to be distributed from the Hambletonian Society for such a noble venture. Perhaps Chris McErlean at Penn National can get his colleagues to open up one of their vaults and help out on behalf of Freehold Raceway. Perhaps our colleagues in Ontario, at the Woodbine Entertainment Group, would see the long-term value of moving quickly (or at least a little quicker) at eradicating the international threat posed by ITPP.

Perhaps some of the sports leading and most successful trainers and owners will take a stand here and contribute to the cause. Perhaps a few track owners can chip in as well. I have heard from hundreds of men and women in harness racing over the past few years as I have written about our sport’s dismal response to the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs. You have written to me. You have called me. You have button-holed me at racetracks. Sometimes you have disagreed about my methods; but you all want the same thing- -to make the field fair.

“What can I do to help?” so many of you have asked me. Well, to all of you, here, finally, is my answer: If you want the good guys in the fight for racing integrity to have legal and medical ammunition to respond to the horse dopers, don’t wait for someone else to make sure it happens. Make sure yourself. Write a check. Donate a breeding. Dedicate the proceeds from one or two races. Get it done. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Here, finally, is that concrete, productive step.

News and notes…

This is my last regular weekly column for Harnesslink but no, I promise, there is no drama surrounding the end. I want to especially thank Harnesslink’s John Curtin for giving me an international forum to write about harness racing the way I have been able to write about harness racing for the past six months. I can’t think of a braver publisher in harness racing today and I hope we work together again soon. I will continue to write for Harnesslink on from time to time whenever the situation merits.

I also hope that the important harness racing conversations I started here with some of you, and more importantly the conversations that began between and among you based upon my work, will linger on. I’ll be back soon. Until then, thanks as always for reading my work.

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