Day At The Track

Commission dropped the ball on EPO testing?

04:10 AM 28 Aug 2008 NZST
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Harnesslink recieved the following from Mr. Robert Leatham of Ontario Canada, a passionate harness racing fan and gambler. We are reprinting it in full without comment, and have edited it only for grammar. We would really appreciate your thoughts, let us know by leaving a comment below this article.

There is a drug of choice used by some horse racing trainers. Not every horse trainer in the business just the ones with a nefarious intent to defraud the betting public and steel purse money from their associates.

The drug is called Erythropoietin or E.P.O, a blood doping agent that accelerates the horse’s ability to produce red blood cells by the thousands. Red blood cells are the oxygen carrying component in the blood stream needed to increase the horse’s stamina and speed. In some animals a drop of 4 to 5 seconds over the distance of a mile isn’t an unrealistic figure. Both speed and stamina are highly sought after by theses cheating trainers, the scourge of the industry, in order to obtain the so called racer’s edge.

It’s a fact; this drug is being used in Standardbred horse racing. The association’s governing body in Ontario, the Ontario Racing Commission has caught and convicted at an alarming rate numerous trainers using this deadly lethal drug on their equestrian athletes.

Some O.R.C. officials and horsemen might question the word alarming but in this authors opinion more than one convicted individual is alarming and the term alarming is subsequently elevated to a higher level by the inconceivable fact that this drug kills horses.

That’s right sports fans, kills them dead and to top it off the drugs effect doesn’t allow them a quick and timely death like the electric chair or a lethal injection of sodium cyanide, no sir, it demands the animal rot away from the inside out like a self induced cancer. Its liver and kidneys shutting down over a period of weeks or months most times prolonging the pain, agony and suffering till finely the only relief found is when the horse takes it’s final breath. Brutal or what? I surely think so.

It sickens me the thought of it happening, but none the less E.P.O and it’s synthetic brother D.P.O are prevalent and in use in the Standardbred racing community in Ontario or world for that matter. It’s a fact. A fact brought to light by the out of competition testing program.

The latest and supposedly the most effective weapon made available to the O.R.C. and other jurisdictions that have adopted the policy in order to apprehend these misfit trainers who think the use of this self destructing drug isn’t all that bad. “Give them a liver flush; race them light, they’ll be okay,” one nameless trainer was heard to say amid an echo of laughter at a resent horse auction. Right on Hermann Goring. Go on back to the concentration camp and rewrite your trainer’s license in that jurisdiction. Cretin!!

Anyways, as stated earlier, the O.R.C. is the governing body responsible for the honesty and integrity of the racing product produced by the horsemen and racetracks in Ontario for the betting public to gamble on. This Provincial Government appointed organization is the gate keeper of the sport. The officials put in charge of providing a level playing field for all owners and trainers in the sport, new and old alike to compete in equality, the same rules applied for everyone involved in the business.

In essence they are the authorities of horse racing in the Province of Ontario and most times do a spectacular job policing the industry. Their battle against the individual’s intent on using the drug of death E.P.O. has been a valiant effort, one they are to be commended on.

Over the course of the past three years they have identified a life threatening drug “E.P.O.” that at the onslaught of the problem was identified by nothing more than a seedy rumor in the backstretches, a whispered combination of letters only uttered by select trainers in the know and placed it front and center right in the industries lap. They developed a test to identify the foreign antibodies in a horse’s blood stream and started pursuing suspect individuals.

Warning’s were issued to the entire Ontario racing community good and bad individuals alike, that cheaters, misfit trainers who still persisted in using the deadly drug would be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. As a matter of fact new penalties were introduced to the rule book to accentuate the seriousness of the problem. Fines and suspensions greater than the industry players could have ever imagined came into play. Lifetime suspensions, fines in excess of $100,000.00 became topic of fodder around the tack shops and backstretches in mainstream and rural Ontario.

The gauntlet had been thrown down by the O.R.C. To be caught with or to use the drug would come at a paramount price.

But in reality the test the O.R.C. developed didn’t come without a hitch.

In order to identify the foreign protein in the animals contaminated blood it had to be drawn within a 72 hr window after the injection of E.P.O. or D.P.O. had been administered. Sadly it seemed this was enough of a crack in the O.R.C. armor for some brazenly bold individuals to continue using the horrific drug.

The O.R.C. soon realized the problem of doping animals with this deadly drug E.P.O. still existed and decided to implement an out of completion testing program. A program which would allow them access to any licensed trainers facility, suspect or not and the right to test any animal in any trainers care at any time of day or night. The program was and is a success and has become one of the most effective tools available to annihilate the problem of E.P.O. doping in the Standardbred industry.

Problem solved. Some think so. I’m not quite sure.

In developing the out of completion testing program the O.R.C. and other affiliated groups in the industry decided to abandon the initial criteria drawn up in the rule book and adopt a lesser more lax approach to the eventual identification and testing of a suspect user of E.P.O. or D.P.O. The red flags are as follows,:

  1. dramatic improvement in a horse’s performance.
  2. dramatic improvement in a horses performance after it has moved to a different trainer.
  3. a tip or knowledge of the procession, sale or use of the drug E.P.O. or D.P.O. The knowledge of it being administered to a horse in the care of a licensed trainer or a complaint presented to the commission by another trainer or group of trainers or owners about the suspect use of the drug by any licensed trainer or owner.

imple as one, two, three eh? Supposedly but in this authors opinion not quite.

For instance, how do you identify a performance change in a two yr old colt or filly, trotter or pacer that has had one or two qualifiers and is now into race in an elimination of, say, oh I don’t know we’ll use the stake race “The Battle of Waterloo” or any “Gold OSS elimination” or the “Metro Pace” or the “Merry Annabel Trot” or the 2yr old or the 3yr old “Breeders Crown” for that matter. I don’t know how a determination of past performances can be made when the animal in question doesn’t have a history of starts or has only had one trainer or the animal has been trained under the radar at some remote farm or training center or has been conditioned out of the province qualified in another jurisdiction and then appears here ready to make it’s first life time start in an Ontario Sires Stake $40,000.00 gold elimination.

Who’s assessing its performance up till then. Got any idea who ? Well I’ll tell ya.

No one.

No one other than the person who’s going to inject it with E.P.O. Smiling as he or she adds their trainers edge into the mix. Think about it. If any trainer was going to administer E.P.O. or D.P.O wouldn’t it be to their advantage to do so when the horse is into race for the big bucks and not some maiden race in god knows where? Wouldn’t that be the time to initiate out of completion testing? Makes sense to me, but who am I to make assumptions. I’m not the “de-sider” I’m only a gambler.

After finding out about this categorizing, lackluster, assumption-izing attitude towards the testing of E.P.O. I decided to contact the O.R.C. myself and find out what was actually going on with the testing procedures for E.P.O. What was the actual protocol in use?

It seemed I had a burr under my saddle and the itch was starting to turn into a thorn in my side. So I didn’t fool around. I went right to the top of the regime asking the receptionist at the ORC for The Executive Director and CEO Mr. John L. Blakney’s extension. I was pumped. Well guess what, he was away from the office till the 19th of August. Talk about taking the wind out of your sail. Here I was all fired up ready to ask some serious questions about the fairness of the sport I’ve loved and watched and occasionally participated in for the past 40 years and my go to guy wasn’t around. Cheeze what now?

Luckily it didn’t take me long to regroup. One quick look on the ORC web site and I settled for Commissioner Rod Seiling, Chair of the ORC. With out hesitation I made another call to the head quarters of the ORC and guess what he also was out for the day. Bad luck or what!! I think the receptionist must have heard my slow gurgling sigh of frustration after she informed me of his whereabouts because she quickly noted Mr. Sieling would return to the office the next day, and she would put me through to his personal secretary. Oh ya!! finally a ray of sunshine shines in my life after all.

So I left a message with his assistant and one on his answering machine, stating I had some questions to ask about E.P.O. testing and would he call me back the next morning to discuss my concerns. His secretary said she would pass on my request first thing tomorrow morning. Beautiful. Who ever said dealing with government officials was a hard go around mustn’t have had to deal with the ORC. Two calls and I’ve got an audience booked with the Chairman. Excellent. What more could I ask for.

Well the next morning arrived too early for me as sleep came only in short unsettled patches. The weight of my prescheduled phone call obviously heavy on my mind and as I went about my daily routine with the portable phone lodged deep in my track pants pocket my edginess started to escalate. My day ahead was turning into the same old, same old, you know, watch New Day on A-Channel London till eight o’clock before taking the hounds for a walk around nine, leaving strict orders with the warden {my better half} that if the commish calls when I’m out I’ll tag him back as soon as I get home. “Ya, ya,” she said as I walked out the door. “I’ll get right on that, if you’ll put the phone back in the cradle dear.”

Back home by 10:00 am, dog walk complete and still no call. Hum? I pondered the thought of none coming but brushed it off with, Oh well time for a quick coffee and a look at last nights results on Standardbred Canada. With that complete and still no phone call I started to think maybe I wasn’t going to receive one.

Well it was only 10:30 maybe he’s busy I surmised, so off to the garden and flower beds to do some devout weeding, portable phone securely seated in the bottom of my pants pocket again ready to respond when the call finally came. Life didn’t grind to a halt just because you where waiting on a call from the top dog you know. My daily chores still had to be attended to.

Well twelve thirty rolls around and I stagger into the house exhausted covered in mud two fingers bleeding profusely after a savage battle with my English roses and you guessed it, the commish still hadn’t made contact. I was beginning to think I should issue a reminder but soon put it off when a bowl of hot chicken soup and a toasted tuna melt appeared on the kitchen table.

Dinner was great as always {the wife’s a fabulous cook} but not good enough to sway me from my mission and when she sat down to watch One Life To Live at 1 pm, I made the call to Mr. Seiling’s office and left another message on his voice mail letting him know I was still interested in discussing with him said testing procedures. Shortly after one thirty the phone rang, I sprang out of my lazy boy recliner like an Olympic runner off the blocks and rushed to the kitchen to answer the phone. {Can you believe it; I lugged it around all morning and when the darn thing finally rang, where was it? Back in the cradle}.

Anyways, on the line was the Chair of the ORC Mr. Seiling and with introductions aside he stated he had me on the speaker phone in his office and in attendance with him was the Deputy Director of the ORC, Mr Rob McKinney. He stated that since I had ask to talk about E.P.O. that Mr. McKinney was the man in charge of investigating E.P.O. accusations and thought it was best if he sat in on our conversation.

I said that was fine and our conversation started with me asking the question, was any horse or horses that raced in the North American Cup tested for E.P.O. and if they were tested was it by means of out of completion testing. He replied that as far as he knew none had been tested. But that they had tested the winner and a couple of random horses in the final after the race for the usual post race drug tests. I ask why not and he said none met the current criteria.

I then ask him what the criteria was and what was the protocol to determine if an animal should be tested for E.P.O? He went on to say the ORC had a agreement with the affiliated horse associations and racetracks that an animal wouldn’t be tested for EPO unless it fell into one of the three previously mentioned categories in this article, 1- change of performance, 2 - performance change after a trainer change had occurred 3- a tip or an accusation of the drug being used by a trainer or owner on a horse or horses in their care.

After hearing this I went on to explain my theory of how do you evaluate a horse’s performance when there is no evidence available of said horse’s ability on the racetrack to make an evaluation of the individuals past performance levels?

I then went on to state that I thought that any horse racing for a purse of $50,000.00 or more should be subject to out of completion testing two weeks before the race takes place. Mr. Seiling scoffed at my suggestion and informed me that the ORC didn’t have the funding to do so and said that if I came up with the funding they’d be more than happy to oblige me and do the tests.

I reiterated my position on a two year old having no previous starts and that the ORC where using a equation divisor to evaluate a performance level that subsequently didn’t exist. That there was no way of knowing whether the animal was racing drugged or not unless they did out of completion testing previous to the race. Mr. Seiling raised his voice an octave or two and stated emphatically again that as he had informed me earlier, the funds weren’t available to do said testing and if I wanted it done I’d have to come up with the funding.

I then ask him if it was okay in his books to let a two yr old horse race drugged on EPO. He said certainly not. And I said so how do you know for sure there isn’t one doing it unless the animals are tested for E.P.O. using the ORC’s latest and most efficient weapon available to them, their out of completion testing program. He said none of the animals fit the criteria. I then raised my voice an octave and said of course they don’t, they don’t have any starts to create any data.

He reiterated with we don’t have the funding. I cut him off. Frustrated by his one sided lack of money meadow muffin nonsense and went on to explain, it only made sense that a bad apple would try and profit when the money was in the pot to do so. That trainers could evaluate a colts performance level fairly accurately and if they so choose to do so they could take a good colt administer E.P.O. to it, turn it into a monster on the racetrack and you the ORC would be none the wiser, never testing that colt or filly as long as it performed at the same enhanced level.

The air waves went dead.

There was no articulate quick response. After a second of silence Mr. Seiling spoke turning the conversation around and insinuated that I had some hidden knowledge of abuse. That I was hiding information about some trainer I new and that they where using E.P.O. on an animal and that if I did, I had better come clean and tell Mr. McKinney about it immediately.

He went on to scold me about his accusation and well of course I couldn’t interrupt him because he’d already schooled me on the edict of debate and I was not to interrupt him when he had the floor so I didn’t. But let me say as soon as he finished his attempt at an ambiguous result, I whole heartedly and unequivocally instructed him that he wasn’t to try and construe the conversation in that direction.

That I didn’t belong to any horse racing affiliation and had no such knowledge of any trainer using E.P.O. and that I thought it was rather unfair of him to insinuate I did. I told him I was merely a fan of the industry and that I thought the situation of a trainer taking advantage of the E.P.O. testing criteria could come into play and that they should look into the possibility of it actually happening.

He then went on to say that it sounded like I thought everyone racing Standardbred horses used E.P.O. on their animals. I said no just the ones that cheated used it and that his naïveté’s towards the fact was pathetic. I instructed him to look over his case files if he needed proof that certain horsemen have used E.P.O. and have gotten away with it and that what I was implying really had a good chance of happening especially if the O.R.C. didn’t make an effort to test young horses, 2 and 3 yr olds racing in these extremely lucrative big money stake races.

Honestly I was flabbergasted by his arrogance and the tone he took with me.

He then stated he had a meeting he had to attend and needed to end the conversation. So I buttered him up and told him I appreciated his time and realized that he was a very busy man but if he could oblige me I had only one last question to ask him. His voice mellowed and he said go ahead.

So I ask him what his position on trainer disclosure was. And he said… what? And I replied; you know trainer disclosure on legal medications. When a horse is sick or lame and a trainer has it on medication, drugs such as Venniepalmin or Sputaliaisin or has had it’s knees injected with helonic acid in between starts or has had the horse treated with bute for the past three weeks and jogs it once for two miles the day before he drops it into race or has a claimer out of the box for a month and then schools it off the gate at Mohawk going a mile in 55 or 54 before putting it back into race somewhere. Should you let the betting public know about the changes in the horses training schedule?

I clarified my question to him as specifically as I could, hoping he would get the gist of it. Again there was a pause in his response time. Finally he said he was working on a horse heath passport and was somewhat reluctant to discuss this with me that he needed to have further discussions with someone in the medical field on the subject and that he was a little leery about giving away trainer secrets to their competitors.

I said what about the betting public, shouldn’t they have a right to know the horse’s present condition. Good or bad? Well he hymned and hawed till I spoke up and said, as far as I could see the Standardbred horse racing industry had lost the betting publics confidence on the product they put forth for them to gamble on. And until the ORC, horseman and the racetrack owners realized that disclosure was one of the most important issues facing the industry they where doomed.

I ask him what’s wrong with being able to say the horses participating in the North American Cup have all been tested for E.P.O. They are clean, fit animals ready to compete. Go ahead and bet with confidents people we’re an illegal drug free association and what legal medications have been used on any particular horse are listed in your racing program. Until this message is plastered over every news station, newspaper and information venue available the troubles surrounding the Standardbred racing industry will not go away. I did not give him a chance to respond. I thanked him for his time and said Good Day. He replied with the same. End of conversation.

So in conclusion after my discussion with Mr. Seiling and Mr. McKinney I am right back at the title of this document. Have the ORC dropped the ball on E.P.O. testing? In my opinion I think they have.

To hear the Chair of the O.R.C. bellow time and again at a concerned fan they don’t have the money to police the industry properly and guarantee the industry provides an impeccable, clean, honest product for gamblers to wager on, says it all in my books.

It made me stop and think. Did this appointed representative of the government have absolutely no foresight at all? Was he that stagnant the only way he new or understood how to deal with a situation was to roll out the paper towel and mop up the spilt milk after the fact. Could he not figure how to cap the bottle before it got spilt or what?

If this is the case may I suggest Mr. Seiling you return to the hospitality industry, it seems it might have been the right career choice for you to stick with. Your ability to grasp the reality that when there is an enormous amount of purse money on a horse race someone will always try and come up with the racer’s edge, be it trainer, owner or organized crime.

You have to be ever vigilant of this and outthink the criminal at every turn. To stand and cry we don’t have the money to test horses for E.P.O., horses that compete in races that have a purse structure in some cases upwards of a million dollars is asinine sir and to not procure the funds to test them or realize the potential of the crime happening is absolutely childish.

The horsemen have an abundant amount of money, more so than any other agriculture driven industry in the Province. My goodness the two industries Thoroughbred and Standardbred together amass almost $400,000,000.00 dollars in revenue a year from the Ontario Slots and Casinos and that’s not even taking into consideration their rake from the handle wagered on their product.

Surely a trainer or owner willing to spend thousands of dollars a year to stay eligible to the “Battle Of Waterloo=$300,000.00 purse” or the “Metro Pace= $1,000,000.00 purse” or the “OSS Program= $40,000,000.00 purse structure” can afford another $500.00 dollars for testing his entry and demand all animals in the race be tested as well. Simply write the stipulation into the nomination agreement. All horses entering an elimination and, or final of said stake race will be subject to E.P.O. out of completion testing, having blood drawn from the declared entries every 72 hr’s, 14 days prior to the start date of the elimination, at the owners expense.

Peace of mind doesn’t come cheap sir.

Your organization is the rule maker Mr. Seiling. Wake up and take hold of the bit sir. Lead this industry like it should be led. Restore it’s pride, integrity and dignity before it’s too late and if your not the man to do it, then be man enough to step away from the plate and let someone who is take over the reins and drive on. Stop procrastinating and earn your paycheque Sir.

If I sound too harsh. I apologize. I do not make my opinion known out of malice or revenge. I simply want the matter I brought to your attention given conducive consideration and not side stepped in a cavalier manner because you and the rest of the rule makers assume a trainer of ill repute would not have the nerve to drug a 2yr old race horse.

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