Frog Juice: Horse Racing’s New Doping Scandal

An illegal substance extracted from the skin of South American frogs both numbs pain and makes racehorses hyper -- the perfect combination from a sport already under fire over doping scandals.

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L. Toshio Kishiyama / Getty Images

More than 30 horses have now tested positive for an illegal performance-enhancing substance that makes even the grossest doping scandal of human athletes pale in comparison. Apparently, horse owners have been paying chemists to squeeze frogs in South America and send the slime that drips off the amphibians’ backs to trainers in the United States. According to a report in the New York Times Tuesday, traffic in dermomorphin, a drug obtained from the skin of the Phyllomedusa sauvagei, commonly known as the waxy monkey tree frog, has racing officials across four states concerned.

Dermorphin has the twofold benefit of both numbing the pain a horse might feel from an injury and simultaneously rendering the animal hyperactive. “For a racehorse, it would be beneficial,” Craig W. Stevens, a professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University, told the Times. “The animal wouldn’t feel pain, and it would have feelings of excitation and euphoria.” The effects of this painkiller are even more powerful than morphine.

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Dermorphin is only one of many doping methods that have plagued racetracks over the years, though it’s definitely the most exotic — narrowly beating out cobra venom, which has been used as a pain suppressant. But doping in horse racing is a century-old tradition, going at least as far back as a case in England in the nineteenth century in which a man was executed for drugging a racehorse with arsenic. But in a sport in which fans are becoming increasingly concerned over animals’ welfare and the methods used to train them — not excluding this year’s triple crown favorite, I’ll Have Another, recently scratched from the Belmont Stakes — its a blow racing officials aren’t eager to take. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said the executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission, Charles A. Gardiner III. “We’re fighting back federal intervention. We’re under attack and losing our fan base.”

Labs have found dermorphin in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, and regulators suspect its use in Texas. Though frog juice rumors had been circulating for a long time, officials had been unable to identify the substance until a lab in Denver recently found the correct testing procedure. No trainers have been formally charged yet, though racing regulators say we can expect a crackdown soon.

However, don’t expect a crackdown to deter cheating. Edward J. Martin, president of Racing Commissioners International, bemoaned the fact that as soon as you crackdown on one drug, trainers move on to using another.

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