What should bettors know about Breeders' Cup drug testing?

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Now retired, Masochistic was the disqualified Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up in 2016 that became the catalyst for expanded drug testing. (Benoit photo)

Las Vegas

Every sport has its dark side that makes the very subject cringe-worthy. In football it is head injuries. In baseball it is analytics. With horse racing it is drugs.

Wait just a minute. Before you change the internet channel, this is not one of those columns that will beat the drum for getting medication out of the game. On the contrary, I accept it. I don’t have to like it. But I accept it.

This instead is a column asking why we as a public in general and bettors in particular cannot find out exactly what is being shot into horses – legally and otherwise.

The Breeders’ Cup is on the vanguard of finding out. At least it is trying to. But in keeping with the cringe-worthiness of the subject itself, it is keeping its information hidden away.

This has led to more and more cynical whispers on racetrack back sides that owners and trainers may be sidelining some good horses to keep them from being tested.

Are you lost yet? Let’s get you up to speed.

It was one year ago next week when VSiN.com broke the story that, in addition to the host state, the Breeders’ Cup was doing its own out-of-competition drug testing ahead of its championships. That testing has moved full speed into a second year ahead of this year’s climactic meet in November at Churchill Downs.

“The protocols that were implemented last year for the Breeders’ Cup to conduct its own out-of-competition testing are all in effect,” Breeders’ Cup senior vice president Dora Delgado said in an email. “We began earlier this year making sure that some (win-and-you’re-in) Challenge entries, all Challenge winners and possible runners are all being tested and will continue to be tested all the way through pre-entry.”

So just like last year, anyone who has a horse that is identified as a legitimate Breeders’ Cup contender should expect a knock on the barn door to collect a sample. That means random tests are apparently happening more often now than ever in the third of a century that the Breeders’ Cup has been going on.

This expanded testing is a direct result of Masochistic being disqualified from his second-place finish in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita because he tested positive for a trace amount of the steroid Winstrol. Trainer Ron Ellis thought it would be out of Masochistic’s system by race time. Under California rules, Winstrol was legal for horses as long as it was not given to them within 60 days of a race.

The problem was that the steroid was and still is illegal under any circumstances at the Breeders’ Cup, which until 2016 relied on the host state to do the drug-testing dirty work. Masochistic was the trigger for more widespread testing that has not exactly been shouted about around the country.

So now when a racehorse that did well in the first half of the year gets a rest, skips subsequent races, vanishes for months at a time, is it just getting a break from the trainer? Or is it being kept away from the Breeders’ Cup testers?

Lacking any reports from the Breeders’ Cup about its testing, and with trainers always reluctant to say just what they are putting into their horses, cynics are wagging fingers, and bettors are left to wonder.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” said the Wynn’s Johnny Avello, who knows more about horses than anyone making book in Las Vegas. “I don’t know the medications that are illegal in the different jurisdictions. I don’t even know what medications mean to be honest with you. Do they take Flomax to make them pee more? I don’t know.”

We may not know now, but who is to say we would not know more if we had the information in front of us? There was a time not so many generations ago that we did not know what Lasix and Bute were or what they meant. Now that they have become standard fare in past performances, there is no worthy horseplayer that does not have a working knowledge of their effects on Thoroughbreds and their races.

Which begs the question why the Breeders’ Cup does not make the results of its drug testing readily available to the public? And why can’t the racing offices at tracks round up and divulge the medications being injected into horses beyond the “L” and the “b” that we see on race days?

“Most horseplayers are not pharmacists,” Avello said. “They just don’t know what drugs mean. But some guys that are really into the game that maybe own horses and breed horses and live the game know what those certain drugs do. The average horseplayer has no idea. But if you give them the information, they’ll learn. If they see horses on a certain drug and they see that’s a successful drug when you use it, then they’ll use that as a handicapping tool.”

I am not naïve enough to think that all trainers and veterinarians will be completely honest and forthright with their information. But why not open the door on the information that is already being gathered? Is it because there is a fear that this will rock the idealistic, hay-oats-and-water boat? Pun intended here; that ship has already sailed.

“I’ve never thought that the guys today didn’t have something that makes their horses run faster,” Avello said. “But it’s not illegal. It’s just something they found. Maybe some type of vitamin or injection or what have you. And I think that’s what separates some of the good guys from the not-so-good guys.”

Avello said that the ultimate solution would be a national commission to oversee racing. The problem is that that will never happen – at least not as long as one size does not fit all racing jurisdictions.

But since the Breeders’ Cup has taken it upon itself to be a clearinghouse for this information, at least for its races, then why must it be left behind closed, file-cabinet drawers and proprietary digital files? Make that database transparent. We as bettors may not understand it at first. But that let that be our worry – just as we try to figure out why the rail was dead last year at Del Mar.

Racing notes and opinions

New York-breds Diversify (7-5) and Mind Your Biscuits (2-1) are the top morning-line choices for this weekend’s $1.2 million Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga, the nine-furlong race that was the springboard last year for Gun Runner’s championship campaign. Likely to try and lead the whole way Saturday, Diversify is coming off a pair of wins at Belmont Park in the Commentator and the Suburban. He will be carrying co-top weight. Mind Your Biscuits came back from his second straight win in the Dubai Golden Shaheen sprint by finishing second in June in the Met Mile. How he does going this first time around two turns and first time at nine furlongs will say a great deal about how he fares in this race. The closer Good Samaritan (12-1) will be my long-shot play based on his two wins at Saratoga, including last year’s Jim Dandy. The Whitney is scheduled for 5:46 p.m. EDT Saturday.

Looking for his fourth win in the race, Bob Baffert shipped his closer Once On Whiskey (5-2) to Mountaineer Park for the $500,000 Grade 3 West Virginia Derby, another nine-furlong feature scheduled for 5:35 p.m. EDT Saturday. Potential pace-setters Draft Pick (3-1), High North (4-1) and Mr. Freeze (9-2) are next on the morning line. Early pace has a 76 percent strike rate this season at Mountaineer Park, leading me to favor Draft Pick to deliver for trainer Peter Eurton and jockey Joe Talamo.

Yes, it is nine months until the Kentucky Derby. Still, Avello said he was asked to post a price for Baffert’s talented 2-year-old Roadster, the Quality Road colt that won his debut Sunday at Del Mar by 4½ lengths. So he did. “I’ve got a one-horse future book right now,” Avello said. “I put him up because people are asking for him.” Four bettors took Roadster at 25-1 to win the Derby. Since they bet a combined $2,000, Avello could be on the hook for $50,000. He has since cut the odds to 20-1. Horse Racing Nation reported that Roadster’s next race is expected to be Sept. 3 in the $300,000 Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. Saying this is the earliest he has ever taken a Derby bet, Avello’s full futures market will open the middle of next month.

A shoe worn by 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby is being sold in an on-line auction being run by Lelands sports memorabilia. Six bids have been taken so far, going from the $10,000 opener to $21,437 by Thursday night. Bidding closes Aug. 17. The shoe was provided by the family of the late Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Three-time classic-winning trainer Doug O’Neill discusses his string of horses and his bid to win the 2018 training title at Del Mar. Longtime New York turf writers Bob Ehalt and Tom Pedulla preview Saturday’s Whitney Stakes and discuss their careers covering racing. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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