Years ago, some thoroughbred trainers juiced up their horses with prerace "speedballs," potent mixtures of heroin and cocaine that supposedly made the horses run faster. Speedballs gave way to scores of other, cheaper drugs—some legal, some not—that also boosted performances in one way or another: stimulants, painkillers, anti-inflammatory agents, you name it. People in racing say there aren't many drugs that haven't been tried on a horse at least once by some trainer looking for an edge.
All of which adds intrigue to the California cocaine mystery. No one is sure why six thoroughbreds handled by six different trainers—among them the highly successful and respected D. Wayne Lukas and Laz Barrera—have tested positive in the state for cocaine in the last four months. The trainers deny giving the drug to any horse or knowing of anyone else who has done so, and almost everyone in the sport believes them. After all, the races involved were primarily small-potatoes affairs, especially for trainers of Lukas's and Barrera's stature. And no evidence exists to suggest that cocaine actually helps horses run faster.
Nevertheless, cocaine did show up in those California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) tests, and that fact begs for an explanation. Consider some of the possibilities that have been raised:
?A stable hand used cocaine and had residue of the drug on his hands when handling a horse's bridle or feed.
?The urine samples were spiked with cocaine after being drawn.
?The lab fouled up. Truesdail Laboratories of Tustin, Calif, which has tested horses for the CHRB for nearly 50 years, has admitted losing part of its testing data on one of the horses involved while purging some computer disks. All six positive samples are being retested at Ohio State.
?A trainer or assistant trainer administered cocaine to the horses. The drug could be used as a painkiller, although the cost would seem prohibitive. Of greater concern to the CHRB is that cocaine is possibly being used as part of a drug cocktail far more sophisticated than the speedballs of old.
Few horses have ever come up positive in more than a decade of testing for cocaine at California tracks. The recent positives may reflect the effectiveness of a new, more sensitive test for cocaine that the CHRB introduced in November. The CHRB has been using the test on both current and frozen urine samples, and four of the six positives—including those involving horses trained by Lukas and Barrera—have turned up in samples frozen last summer.
The trainers involved can look ahead to months of hearings and, if necessary, appeals as they fight to protect their reputations and avoid fines and suspensions. Exoneration won't come easy: In California, each trainer is accountable for all drug violations involving his horses, even those committed by third parties without his knowledge.