Insiders at horse-racing tracks call it frog juice, and concerns about its use as a performance-enhancing drug in Louisiana, Oklahoma and other states have spread to Nebraska.
The Nebraska Racing Commission is investigating a case in which a urine sample drawn from a horse in the July 15 field at Horsemen’s Park in Omaha tested positive for a drug known scientifically as dermorphin.
The drug is extracted from a South American tree frog and acts as both a painkiller and a stimulant. And, as of Aug. 4, Adams horse trainer Kim Veerhusen has been suspended and ordered to pay a fine of $1,500 pending review of the incident by the commission.
According to the formal complaint, a horse named Cheatin’ Cowboy may have had dermorphin in its system when it finished second in the first race of the day in Omaha last month.
Cheatin' Cowboy since has been disqualified as a source of purse money, and Veerhusen has been suspended through Sept. 19 while drug allegations are investigated. Along with that, entry of any horses he owns or trains will be denied for the rest of the race season as it continues in Columbus.
Tom Sage, executive director of the Racing Commission, refused to answer questions about what appears to be a new cause for testing vigilance at Nebraska tracks.
“The matter is under investigation,” he said. “I wouldn’t have any other comment, except for what’s in the ruling.”
Repeated attempts to reach Veerhusen were unsuccessful.
According to a June story in The New York Times, claims about dermorphin’s use on the U.S. horse circuit could not be checked out until a Denver laboratory upgraded its testing procedures.
After that, more than 30 horses in four states tested positive. Three of four thoroughbreds tested in Louisiana in May finished first in their races, which bolsters dermorphin’s reputation for making horses run faster.
Ashland veterinarian Richard Porter’s practice is focused heavily on horses, but Porter himself is not active at tracks in a professional capacity and not much of a fan of the sport either.
“It’s really so disappointing what goes on behind the scenes,” he said.
He described dermorphin as a natural opiate and said it's 40 times more potent than morphine.
Its chemical makeup gives it a strong ability to stop pain, he said.
“So a lot of horses they would use it on would be old, broke-down horses that used to run fast, but may have issues.
“It’s kind of inhumane ... because if you force them to run, they break down even worse.”
Dermorphin is banned in the United States but not elsewhere, Porter said.
“So they learn how to use that stuff in those countries. So that’s where they get those ideas.”
The Nebraska Racing Commission’s annual report covering 2011 listed 27 investigations, including rule violations involving positive tests on horses with ractopamine, flunixin and clenbutorol in their systems.
As described in the Times’ article, dermorphin is the latest in a long list of illegal performance-enhancing drugs that have found their way onto racetracks.
Porter saw no reason to disagree with that assessment.
“I don’t know why people think they need to use this stuff,” he said, “but they do.”