Doped Up Racing

August 16, 2019

By: Paige Galindo

There’s nothing like the disappointment of watching an esteemed athlete’s stellar abilities become instantly dismantled by the exposure of their use of steroids. It’s a level of cheating that deprives the sport itself of honor and rips away a fair chance at winning for other competitors. However, illegal substances running through an athlete’s veins to heighten performance is not exclusive to humans. Racehorses are four-legged athletes that can run faster with the help of illegal drugs running through their bloodstreams. However, while the certain use of steroids has been ruled illegal in human athletes, there are some steroids that have been approved for  use in racehorses. Most drugs that have been officially ruled illegal in the world of horse-racing involve painkillers. For the sake of brevity, this article will cover two illegal painkilling substances, sea snail venom and dermorphin.

Imagine if you will, a horse, one of the fastest land animals is set to race against a snail, one of the slowest land animals. It’s an absurd and impossible narrative. But believe it or not, snails and horses can belong in the same sentence. It has recently been discovered that the use of sea snail venom has surfaced from the deep ocean waters and slowly inched its way into the horse racing world with pain killing powers that outrun morphine any day. Slight controversy has arisen in its wake with growing suspicion of the venom being placed at a particular racetrack. 

Truly dynamite in a small package, the sea snail packs a punch as it is able to produce one of the world’s most toxic venoms. It shoots out just enough to paralyze a small fish for the kill but this is just skimming the surface of the venom’s full potency. It has been theorized that the venom a sea snail contains in its entirety is toxic enough to kill 700 people. With certain species of the sea snail, singular events of envenomation alone have resulted in the death of humans. In recent years, however, the venom has been able to be harnessed in the medical field as a powerful pain killer for patients. Given the deadly opioid epidemic that has swept the nation, sea snail venom is proving to be a more effective alternative to treat people with established chronic pain. 

When injected into the horse’s bloodstream, the sea snail venom is able to act quickly to kill the pain and thus dissolves from the horse’s system before it has a chance to step a hoof on the racetrack. While it has never been officially ruled legal or illegal, authorities have subsequently been spurred into immediate screening and testing for the painkilling drug that is being injected into these equine athletes. Unfortunately, due to the infancy of the drug use itself, there is not much more information on the subject yet.

Dermorphin, much like its slimy venom counterpart, has a painkilling effect that is 40 times more powerful than that of morphine. It’s often referred to as “frog juice” because the organic version of the drug is, in fact, produced by frogs. The difference lies in the synthetic version’s ability to stay bonded when it comes in contact with biological fluids. What is naturally produced by frogs simply dissolves and there is no chance for the drug to actually take effect. 

The conundrum with detecting dermorphin that has racing authorities frustrated is the multitude of variations that can be made which makes it extremely tedious to find. In other words, a scientist may be able to test for a certain kind of molecular structure of dermorphin in the lab but another entirely different version of the drug was actually injected into the horse. This puts a strain on pressing charges because someone can come up with literally thousands of modifications on dermorphin and it would take that much more testing to find the actual culprit, short of someone coming forward. And how many times do criminals jump up and say “It was me”?  

Cheating is nothing new to the human race. Whether or not the act of administering the drug can be justified, the law still stands regardless. The use of drugs in racing such as the ones described here put at risk, not just the welfare of the industry overall, but also the lives of the horses that have no say in who takes care of them, not to mention putting jockeys’ lives at risk. Sea snail venom and dermorphin may be able to give the desired results but at what slippery, slimy cost? Indeed, it would make more sense to simply administer what is legal and avoid the chances of causing further harm to the horse and allow this multi-billion dollar industry that much more honesty. 


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