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Making Sure Race Horses Aren't Stoned Ponies

July 24, 1988|Associated Press

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Making sure that race horses aren't winning, or losing, because of drugs is no easy job--especially for the guys in there working with the horses.

Pete Robinson and Mike Shrader are on the front lines of the drug screening program at Charles Town Races. And that means some peculiar occupational hazards.

First, they have to watch for quick kicks from horses brought to the stables after each race on the card. Then they have to be quick with a cup when the horse feels like giving a urine sample.

It's a part of their job, and a part of the track's job to make sure bettors aren't wagering on stoned ponies.

"I want people to know that we try very hard, and as a state we try very hard, to make sure horses aren't running with chemicals in them," said Dennis Dibbern, the chief veterinarian at Charles Town Races.

Every winner on the card and seven randomly selected horses are sent to a state-controlled barn on the grounds during each night of racing. Once there, Robinson, Shrader and others watch and listen for the horse's nature to call.

"You whistle your brains out while waiting," said Shrader, a former groom from Hagerstown, Md., who has been at the track for 12 years.

When the horse begins to urinate, the "steward's assistants" have to be ready with a cup on a long stick. Each urine sample is then divided into two plastic bags and sealed and stamped.

After representatives for the state and the horse owner certify the testing, one bag--anonymously marked--is sent to Wheeling for lab work. The second is held at the park for re-tests in case an appeal is filed.

At Wheeling, lab workers check for "anything that doesn't come with the normal horse," Dibbern said.

And in case an owner or trainer at the track doesn't want to cooperate, "we've got a guard out there if they cause us any trouble," Robinson said.

The only drugs allowed in West Virginia are Lasix, a diuretic that helps a congested horse and phenylbutazone--Bute--which is "slightly similar to a horse as aspirin is to us," he said.

Lasix is allowed because congestion is widespread in the area, with 2,300 horses being held in close quarters. Bute treatment must be discontinued at least 24 hours before a race because it stands to "mask the pain that a horse should not be running with."

Lasix, Bute and other drugs are used to keep the horses comfortable, but some can be used to influence a race, Dibbern said.

"Stadoll is a narcotic painkiller and a bit of a hop for a horse," he said. "The funny thing is, it's a depressant for people."

Even antibiotics are banned in West Virginia, with the idea that if a horse is sick enough to be on drugs, it's sick enough to be held out of a race.

"We can't compromise the idea of 'No chemicals,' " Dibbern said.

If a urine test comes back positive, an owner can appeal. If a check of the second bag of urine reveals the same results, the owner will lose the purse from the race and face suspensions and fines.

"When you're suspended here, you can't even come here and take care of your horses," Dibbern said.

Drug laws vary from state to state, with some having a blanket prohibition on drugs and others allowing a wider selection.

Donelda Goy, the track's other veterinarian, looks over horses when they arrive at Charles Town, and each one must go through a pre-race examination to be cleared for competition.

"We get it in a trot so each leg is stressed equally," Goy said. "If it's too bad, it doesn't even get to the track."

If a horse passes the trot test, it then must run a half-mile workout in 52 seconds or less.

If a trainer sends a bad horse to the post, the penalty is more severe.

"If it's scratched (at the post), it's seven days before it can get back out--even for a workout," Dibbern said.

Such a job can make for enemies, but most jockeys like the job the veterinarians do because they know if a horse stumbles during a race, the jockeys are likely to be injured.

"We've had tremendous success here," said Dibbern.

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