By: Ray Paulick
The Arkansas State Racing Commission on Thursday began random testing for total carbon dioxide (TCO2) levels in horses competing at Oaklawn Park. The move, widely supported by horsemen who seek a level playing field among their peers, adds to integrity measures taken earlier this year at the Hot Springs, Ark., racetrack, including out-of-competition testing for blood doping agents and installation of American Graded Stakes standards for post-race tests in all races.
Purpose of TCO2 testing is to see if bicarbonate loading, commonly referred to as milkshaking, is being done to boost the performance of horses. Loading of bicarbonates increases TCO2 levels and neutralizes the buildup of lactic acid, which causes fatigue in the muscles.
Milkshakes are a prohibited practice on race day in all U.S. jurisdictions. Kentucky and Louisiana in the late 1990s were the last two states to ban the practice.
The traditional method of bicarbonate loading is through a gastro-nasal tube, but “bullets” – a paste-like mix of bicarbonates and electrolytes given via a dose gun in the back of a horse’s mouth four to five hours before a race – are also believed to be an effective means of cheating. The concoction can contain an “energy mix” of amino acids, sugar or complex sugar.
However the bicarbonates are delivered, they can elevate a horse’s TCO2 level and reduce fatigue. Under rules adopted in February by the Arkansas State Racing Commission, which now conform to national standards, any horse testing above 37.0 millimoles per liter will constitute a violation. Previously, the 37.0 level applied to horses racing without furosemide. Horses racing on furosemide were not considered over the limit until they were tested above 39.0 millimoles per liter.
Notice of the TCO2 testing was on Oaklawn Park’s overnight entry sheet.
Bowker said all horses in the randomly selected races would have blood drawn for the TCO2 tests just prior to leaving their barn for the saddling paddock. Arkansas joins other states, including Kentucky and Louisiana in the Midwest, that randomly test for TCO2 levels. Some states do not test for TCO2 levels other than in graded stakes.
California was one of the first states to test for milkshakes in Thoroughbred racing in 2004 (the practice of bicarbonate loading came out of harness racing, which first developed pre-race tests). Prior to routine testing in California, a pilot project tested 82 horses from eight races during the Del Mar meet to determine how prevalent the practice of bicarbonate loading might be. Horsemen were not notified in advance, and 19 of the 82 horses tested above 37.0 – nearly 25 percent of all runners in those races. In the years since TCO2 testing began in California, only a handful of horses tested above the limit.
“When tracks don’t test for milkshakes, it gives trainers a license to cheat,” said one Oaklawn-based trainer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Oaklawn had only been conducting TCO2 tests in American Graded Stakes or stakes the track would like to be considered for grading. The American Beauty fits the latter category.
Bowker said the enhanced daily testing and out-of-competition tests have not produced a single medication violation thus far during the Oaklawn Park meeting. Horsemen share in the cost of the testing program with Oaklawn Park and the commission.