A man who has been in thoroughbred racing for years paid a visit to the Pimlico paddock recently.
"Some of these horses, if you stand and look at 'em, their eyes are dilated," he said. "They got that 'wild' look about them . . . I'm positive they're as 'high' or as 'happy' as a race horse can be and still have his feet on the ground.
"You know there's something there," the veteran added, "you just can't put your finger on it."
The observation is shared by an increasing number of persons on the Maryland racing circuit, and at race tracks throughout the country.
The physical condition of these horses is a particularly pertinent subject at this time because of complaints by jockeys, following the death of jockey Robert Pineda, May 3, at Pimlico, that they are subjected to danger more frequently now because of the condition of the horses they ride. "More horses seem to be breaking down, with shattering injuries, than ever before," said Nick Jemas, the national managing director of the Jockeys' Guild. "We've no explanation. There's great concern."
"The jockeys have a right to be worried," one nationally respected authority on racing medications told The Washington Post. "The only mistake they're making is in criticzing phenylbutazone (Butazolidin) and Lasix when they should be addressing themselves to much stronger stuff - to sublimaze (Fentanyl), to methodone, to dilaudid, to xylocaine, to the steroids, to reserpine (Serpasil) and a heck of a lot of others."
Lasix is a djuretic intended for horses with chronic bleeding and breathing problems; Butazolidin is an anti-inflamatory medication. The two drugs have been legal in Maryland racing for three years.
But the drug-of-the-moment on many back stretches is sublimaze.
"It's one of those low-dosage, high-therapeutic-effect drugs, of the narcotic-analgesic group, sold to humans as Fentanyl," the source said. "It's described as 'narcotic', (rapid-working) and of 'short duration', and racing doesn't have a test for it. We can't pick it up in our chemists' laboratories, although George Maylin at Cornell syas he's getting close to having a test tht will detect it."
Dr. Maylin, reached at the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, said "we think we have a test for it (sublimaze). But we're not advertising a radar trap.
"New York," Malin added, "has an interplay with four or five other states) in sharing the cost and exchanging information on these tests." Maryland is not one of the four or five states.
Sublimaze gives horses a sense of well-being. They get a false or illusive state of mind.
"They just don't know they got legs on them," a source said. "Again, it's a narcotic-analgesic Title II or Group Two drug under federal regulation. It gives you nerve blockage at the central level. The horses just don't feel the pain. They extend themselves . . ."
And, occasionally, these race horses come tumbling down, taking a dive," veteran rider Herb Hinojosa said yesterday. "I don't give a damn myself. After 27 years as a professional, I'm on my way out. I could say a lot more. All I will say is that the horses taking the dive evidently have no feeling when they break down. We need more research.
"Right now," he added, "the important thing seems to be to fill races and not ask questions."
The use of narcotics, stimulants, depressents, local anesthetics and tranquilizers is prohibited by racing law. But reserpine, a tranquilizer, was undetectable until only recently in racing's laboratories.
"The show-horse people are going to have a lot of anguish over that one, in addition to the thoroughbred owners and trainers," a Midwest veterinarian said. "Reserpine's been big in the show ring. Now many of the top people are going to be spending time at hearings. When it comes to the morality factor, winning silverware at a show can be as important to some people as a $200,000 purse to others."
There is nothing new about sublimaze or, for that matter, dilaudid, a stimulant that also is undetectable.
"That's a hop," a Pennsylvania horseman acknowledged. "But with dilaudid and, say, sublimaze, you don't have to worry about anything. You could give a horse a bucketful of the stuff and the labs would never find it. Course, that much of it might kill the horse."
Then there's xylocaine, a local anesthetic beyond the racing chemists' scope.
"Its wonderfully quick-acting," another vet said. "It's injected interarticularly, in the kneecaps or ankles, and it doesn't leak out. You'd hit a horse with it just before the paddock. It numbs the joints. The joint capsule is tight, so there's no way it can leak out into the system in enough quantity in order for it to be discovered."
Methodone is another of the readily available, illegal Title II narcotics-analgesics available to the horseman. But sulimaze is the current favorite.
"Sublimaze? Never heard of it," veteran Bernie Bond said yesterday at Pimlico. His response was typical, although another trainer, Bill Donovan, told a different story.
"I was sitting in a car this morning with a trainer who said he used sublimaze on a horse here recently," Donovan declared. "He said he used it one time, masking it with Lasiz, to take no chances, and that it didn't show.
"The horse, he said, ran like a crazy horse, showed great improvement, got second money. he said he gave it (the shot) intravenously about 20 minutes before leaving for the paddock. He had paid $100 a vail for three vails of it, he said, and he was going to go with it again except his groom spilled it in his shirt pocket before he could use it."
There are different versions of how much sublimaze is needed to produce the desired result, and when it should be administered.
Only five to 10 milligrams of sublimaze are required to get a horse to respond, not that anyone could detect 100. "That's a very small amount. Yet it has such tremendous effect," one source said, "How many times, for instance, have you seen horses that were sore, or lame, after a race in the shedrow. yet their name appears very soon in the entires, and they look like a million dollars the day they run. They look like new.
"That's not Bute, brother. And it's not Lasix, either. Lasix doesn't really mask a thing, as it's always being accused of doing. What it does do, however, in its diuretic phase, is to dilute the urine 20 to 40 times, making it 20 to 40 times harder for the chemist to pick up anything - that's if he were able to pick anything to begin with.
"Why do you think it is that certain trainers repeatedly can claim another man's horse for $4,000 and, a week later, send him out look like he's fresh off the farm and win for $7,000. Do you think that's training, or medicine? The vet is the important man in racing today."
There was a time, not long ago, when responsible persons in racing refused to discuss the drug problem. A horse's erratic form, for example, rarely disturbed the conscience of these citizens, even if it cost the bettors billions. But a jockey's death, such as Pineda's, in a three-horse spill, apparently has awakened a part of the racing community to the illegal drug problem.
There is significant difference between Butaolidin and sublimaze. On Bute, the horse has feeling; the leg doesn't go dead. On methadone or sublimaze, the horse is racing on a stump. He doesn't feel anything. There are other local anesthetics, for example, that you could put a horse's leg in a hot stove and he wouldn't flinch.
Tighter scrutiny in the availability of these drugs does not seem to be the solution. "If the U.S. doesn't make them available, they'd be brought in from Germany or from Switzerland by black market through Canada," one vet said. "What would help would be an autopsy after these fatal accidents. They should take urine and blood samples, then send the material to appropriate independent laboratories outside the state for study."
It would be even more helpful if racing associations and organizations cared enough to finance studies to develop better testing procedures as new drugs come on the market.
"They want the appearance of honest racing," another respected vet said, "but when you mention the millions needed to conduct research, no one's interested. The only parties interested are the lobbyists for the pharmaceutical companies, who want desperately to keep their drug on the market for as wide use as possible."
Then, finally, there are the jockeys. Their lives are in a more precarious position than ever.
"They know it," a former rider said last week at Pimlico. "They know 'controlled medication' is uncontrolled. But you're always going to have somebody willing to ride that sore horse on illegal drugs if the better rider doesn't. So they play the odds. They know the odds are with them, each time out, not against them, of getting back from any one ride, no matter how crippled or medicated the horse is."