Accoring the Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form, Masochistic, who finished second in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint, will be disqualified after two separate tests confirmed trace amounts of stanozolol in the horse’s system.
Stanozolol is legal in California, where the Breeders’ Cup takes place. However, it needs to have cleared the horse’s system by race day and, in this case, it obviously did not.
To his credit, Ron Ellis, trainer of Masochistic, made no excuses.
“It was done therapeutically, because he’s a small horse and we’ve had trouble keeping weight on him,” Ellis said. “It wasn’t hidden. It was fully disclosed with the state, as required.
“The amount is very, very small, but it doesn’t matter. Just having a presence is enough.”
But here’s where it gets interesting. You see, stanozolol goes by another name — Winstrol. Does that ring a bell with anyone? It’s a “foregone conclusion” that it does with many horse racing fans, as that’s the steroid that caused all the trouble for Big Brown during his run for Triple Crown glory.
It is also the drug that was banned — meaning no traces at any time — by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in 1974 and by the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) earlier this year (leave it to racing to move at the speed of continental drift on such issues).
Of course, the most famous case of Winstrol use occurred in the Games of the XXIV Olympiad in Seoul, South Korea on Sept. 24, 1988. On that day, Ben Johnson became the first Canadian runner since Percy Williams in 1928 to win the 100-meter final, lowering his own world record to 9.79 seconds in the process.
Yet, a mere 52 hours later, the greatest scandal in Olympic history was unleashed when it was revealed that Johnson tested positive for Winstrol, or stanozolol.
Nonetheless, there is much debate in racing circles regarding the use of drugs, even those as potent as Winstrol. Many — maybe even most — agree that there is a place for them if the intended purpose is therapeutic.
“Winstrol is brand name for stanozolol, an FDA-approved equine medication,” trainer Charles Simon told me. “Basically, it is a synthetic version of the male hormone testosterone. It is used to increase weight gain via the rebuilding of tissues damaged by disease or injury. An ancillary benefit is that it can act as an appetite stimulant, as horses feeling less than 100 percent will often go off of their feed.
“Racehorses in full training place a lot of strain on their bodies and often anabolic steroids are used to try to counteract those effects — get the horse eating and feeling better. The suggested withdrawal date varies by state, but most require at least a 30-day withdrawal time from last usage and some, like California, suggest 60 days.
“Of course these are relatively arbitrary time frames and what Ron Ellis is finding out is that they aren’t really the letter of the law, they are just best guesstimates. There are a variety of factors that can affect the presence of trace levels of this and other drugs beyond the suggested guideline on race day, including the age, sex, physical size, metabolism and external factors as well,” Simon concluded.
When I asked him if he thought Winstrol specifically should be allowed in the sport, Simon said it depends on the situation and “who you ask.”
“Certainly, when used for its intended purpose, Winstrol can be beneficial to the health of racehorses. Of course, said horses couldn’t be right on top of a race — we are talking about helping horses who are laid up due to some injury. The problem with an all-out ban [on anabolic steroids] is that you can lose the benefits for injured horses making their recovery times longer,” Simon noted.
“That being said, we need to have strict regulations, because the likelihood of abuse does remain if the withdrawal times aren’t far enough out from race day … I would like to see a stricter rule, perhaps 90 days and make the penalties stiff. We also have to protect the horse — and no horse needs anabolics within 60 days,” Simon said.
It’s the potential for abuse that Don Chatlos, trainer of 2004 Breeders’ Cup Mile champ Singletary, also sees as a problem.
“Let me start by saying I hated steroids and, in the end, they were used more because everybody else was using them than they were for therapeutic reasons,” Chatlos informed me via e-mail.
“Winstrol was used on horses that weren’t good eaters and/or were thin and the stress of training and racing exacerbated that. It isn’t as strong as the oil-based Equipoise and didn’t carry the side effects of the aggressiveness that Equipoise brought out. In the end, though, just like most drugs in racing, if a little works, then more must be better and it got out of hand,” Chatlos continued.
“The problem I have with the Ellis situation is the performance-enhancing part. Did [Masochistic’s] levels enhance performance? I think the science would say no.”
While I agree that the issue of drugs in horseracing is a complex one — let he/she who has never taken an aspirin (which is similar to phenylbutazone, or “bute”) cast the first stone — I would argue that, regardless of the administration window, Winstrol is, in fact, a performance-enhancer and should be banned.
I would also add that the performance-enhancing effect of anabolic steroids like Winstrol cannot be measured by the level in one’s bloodstream at any given time. That is just confirmation of usage. The fact is these drugs have a cumulative effect, allowing athletes to train longer and with greater intensity. Remember: Lance Armstrong never tested positive for any PEDs, nor did Barry Bonds.
Heck, there is even drug testing at many body-building events (longtime pro Shawn Ray was disqualified from the 1990 Arnold Classic for failing a drug test, which is like getting busted for smoking weed at a Snoop Dogg concert). Yet, comparing 1920s bodybuilder Charles Atlas to reigning Mr. Olympia Phil Heath is like comparing apples to pumpkins.
Granted, our understanding of physiology is much better today then it was when Atlas was dissuading beach bullies from kicking sand at him 60-70 years ago, but don’t let the GNC commercials fool you — it’s not just protein shakes and creatine that fuel today’s top bodybuilders.
If racing wants to tackle the problem of drugs in the game — something that I think turns off many new fans — there simply needs to be greater transparency.
In the case of Masochistic, it’s clear to me that the gelding’s connections were, in essence, playing a game of Russian Roulette with the testing — and I can’t really blame them for that. In their position, I probably would have done the same thing.
“It’s less than a fifth of a nanogram,” Ellis said, referring to the Winstrol overage. “I don’t dispute the science. I dispute testing to these levels on drugs that are legal to use.”
Still, it troubles me that racing fans are often kept in the dark about key elements of the drug administration process (again, I think it is a huge turnoff to new fans, in particular). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that John Q. Public should have a say in how racehorses are trained or cared for, but they should be informed of things that affect the wagering. In my own analysis of the BC Sprint, I thought Masochistic’s time away from the races (he’d run twice in the past year) was problematic. If I’d known his condition was being maintained via anabolic steroids, I wouldn’t have fretted.
And let’s be real: Gambling is why the National Football League takes its injury report so seriously. As Jim Weber of The Cauldron notes: The purpose of the injury report “isn’t to provide transparency when it comes to player health; it’s to keep gamblers informed. You see, in the face of uncertainties and rumors, outcomes of games become even less predictable, and predictability is what makes the betting world go ‘round. When bets are too risky, gamblers don’t make bets and casinos take games off the boards. When that happens, ratings for those games suffer, and that can — gasp! —negatively impact the league’s $1 billion in profits.”
Simon agrees that better, clearer drug rules are needed — for everybody involved in the Sport of Kings.
“We have to have rules that work at Mahonig Valley and Zia Park as well as Santa Anita and Keeneland. The trainer absolute insurer rule is unfair, as you are assigning blame and penalty for something that an individual often has no control over; however, we need to have some responsibility taken and, if not the trainer, then who?
“Personally, it is troubling to me that I can play by the rules and still get a positive test,” Simon continued. “In my opinion, much of the focus of regulators and those who influence them has been on stricter penalties and demonizing certain medications, as opposed to producing the best possible rules. By ‘best possible rules’ I mean regulations that allow for the proper treatment of horses’ ailments and issues without the medications used for those treatments giving that horse a performance-enhancing advantage.
“Those ideal rules would also take into consideration extraneous factors and a trainer’s past record and any circumstances surrounding the incident. Those rules would be set using better research in regard to withdrawal times and enhanced by more effective security on the backside,” Simon said.
“Is it a coincidence that trainers whose barns are put under surveillance often have a corresponding slump? Perhaps a boost for the integrity of the sport would be if we started to deal with minor issues like minor issues and major ones like a big deal. As it is right now, the line is blurred, especially among race fans and bettors, who the sport, as a whole, has done a poor job educating in matters of the health and welfare of racehorses and the role of medication in that equation,” Simon concluded.