By: Ron Flatter
LAS VEGAS — It started with drug tests that led to the disqualification of a Breeders’ Cup runner-up after last year’s races. Now whispers that the championships have already started their expanded out-of-competition drug tests have been confirmed.
A Breeders’ Cup executive said during the weekend that horses that are considered contenders even before they have qualified for the championships this fall at Del Mar are in the process of being tested.
“Breeders’ Cup Limited will be conducting its own out-of-competition testing this month and every month leading up to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships,” Dora Delgado, senior vice president of racing and nominations, said in an email to VSiN.
Partly in response to last year’s disqualification of Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Masochistic, new rules say that if a horse tests positive for “any anabolic steroid or any other prohibited substance” after early May, it will be declared ineligible for the championships in November. The rules also say that the random tests will focus mostly on certain blood-doping agents and anabolic steroids and that they would be conducted in cooperation with tests already established by the California Horse Racing Board.
“Challenge winners and other possible starters will be tested periodically between now and the event,” Delgado said. “The CHRB will conduct out-of-competition testing according to their rules and regulations on possible runners and horses that have indicated that they will be competing in California.”
“I have no problem with it at all,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, CHRB’s equine medical director. “It’s made my life a hell of a lot easier. It actually takes a big workload off of me.”
The Breeders’ Cup tests cover a wider swath than the 15 “win and you’re in” races that have already been run in North America. For instance, the Breeders’ Cup website shows 10 contenders for the $6 million Classic, but only two of them – Gun Runner and Girvin – have won Challenge Series races. The other eight, including defending champion Arrogate, have not formally qualified yet, although a points system that is also used to fill the field would undoubtedly include them. So all 10 horses are presumably subject to being tested.
One racing professional who does business with many thoroughbred stables told VSiN that “Masochistic last year got everyone scared.”
That was a reference to drug tests that wiped out Masochistic’s second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita. They revealed a trace level of the steroid Stanozolol, which is also known by the brand name Winstrol. Notoriously used by Ben Johnson to cheat his way to an Olympic gold medal 29 years ago, Stanozolol was heavily restricted across the U.S. after trainer Rick Dutrow admitted that he gave it – legally – to Big Brown for his 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories. It was also one of the drugs at the heart of the British steroid scandal four years ago that brought down Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni.
Under California rules Stanozolol may be given to a horse as long as the CHRB is notified, and as long as the horse does not race for 60 days after the drug is given. It also has to be out of the horse’s system on race day. Trainer Ron Ellis admitted to the Daily Racing Form that he gave the drug to Masochistic to try to add some weight, but he did not count on it still being in the horse’s bloodstream 68 days later.
“The disqualification of Masochistic revealed an issue,” Delgado said. “Out-of-competition tests performed by the California Horse Racing Board are not allowed to be shared with the Breeders’ Cup prior to the running of the championships. We could not be informed by the CHRB that a horse that was scheduled to compete in the (Breeders’ Cup) could possibly still have anabolic steroids in its system.”
“We are actually restricted by law and regulation as to how we handle test results,” Arthur told VSiN. “That didn’t work with what (the Breeders’ Cup) wanted to accomplish.”
That proved to be the case when the first red flag for Masochistic came up a week before the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, although few knew about it at the time. Ellis said Masochistic was tested three times over a number of weeks before the championships, but he said he was not told there was a problem until just three days before the Sprint. He wrongly thought the trace amount of Stanozolol would disappear by race day, when a subsequent test came back positive.
“As a result of the disqualification we examined our rules and, together with the cooperation of the CHRB, the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, we modified our pre-race testing rule and created a new condition of entry,” Delgado said.
Masochistic was not only disqualified, but he and Ellis were also banned from taking part in this year’s Breeders’ Cup. The 7-year-old gelding has since been transferred from Ellis to Bob Baffert, who also trains Drefong, the horse that finished first ahead of Masochistic in last year’s Sprint. Now 7, Masochistic has been turned out and is not expected to race again before 2018.
The expanded testing provides an expensive, logistical challenge for a championship program that lures contenders from overseas and sanctions races around the world as “win and you’re in” qualifiers.
“It’s a significant cost,” Arthur said. “It actually is almost as expensive to draw the sample as it is to analyze the sample, especially when you have to go send people to test horses that are in a different country.”
The Breeders’ Cup has hired Dr. William Farmer, a former chief veterinarian for Kentucky racing, to be its testing coordinator. Now based in California, Farmer is working with racing authorities in other nations to have contending horses “tested and their samples sent to the pre-approved testing lab” at the University of California, Davis, where Arthur is on the faculty. Delgado said that international horses that may be bound for the Breeders’ Cup are subject to repeated testing “throughout the year” and again “prior to pre-entry and at pre-entry or upon arrival in the U.S.” This presumably includes visits by European horses to this weekend’s Arlington Million near Chicago.
“The Breeders’ Cup already had a very, very ambitious program,” Arthur said. “They ended up testing half of the horses pre-entered in the Breeders’ Cup, even from overseas. All of Aidan O’Brien’s horses were tested. Over half from England were tested, and I can’t remember how many from France. It was a phenomenal number.”
Two trainers based this summer at Saratoga who have Breeders’ Cup contenders told VSiN that they have not seen any new tests at their barns. But one of them said, “You would think they’ll be coming to Saratoga and to Del Mar.”
The source who first told VSiN of the gossip about expanded testing also suggested – albeit without direct evidence – that it might be a reason for disappointing results from graded-stakes winners this summer.
“Trainers use those steroids to help their horses recover,” the source said. “But after what happened with Masochistic last year, they don’t want to take any chances.”