The trajectory of an illegal drug and its repercussions

Just imagine this: A new performance-enhancing drug is discovered, it comes into the hands of a relative few, and they exploit it for 20 years before it’s legalized and available for all to use as a “therapeutic” medication. At first, the drug in question is illegally obtained and expensive to produce and only those with money and connections can obtain it. As word spreads of its existence, underworld figures, betting stables, and veterinarians who service elite trainers create a black market that drives up demand. Later, generic substitutes are created in unlicensed labs to meet demand as word of its potency spreads. And you know what happens in this type of unregulated cycle—nothing good. The horseplayer is the last to know, especially after he’s been burned at the windows by improbable winners.

Now read this: “[Harthill] admitted to regularly using the bronchodilator clenbuterol some 20 years before it was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in May 1998.” It’s a line from noted—and infamous—veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill’s obituary in Daily Racing Form, available here and written by Marty McGee.

Doc Harthill probably got a hold of the drug in 1978 because it was that year that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) had permitted the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim Ltd. to test clenbuterol’s efficacy on horses in the US. Several veterinarians here were given “research allotments” under strict FDA guidelines, though it’s not known whether Doc Harthill participated in the research. But he was, obviously, a veterinarian who unabashedly gravitated to the newest and best drugs.

In retrospect, one can only imagine how many good horses under Doc Harthill’s care were treated illegally with clenbuterol and benefitted from the drug’s well-documented properties. And how many of them went to stud and made their owners millions? And on the other end, what about the bad horses that paid boxcars for trainers and owners before disappearing into oblivion? Of course it wasn’t just Doc Harthill dispensing the drug—plenty of other vets were on to clenbuterol, too. By the early 1980s, the secret was starting to get out.

An April 20, 1981 New York Times article (“New Horse Drug Focus of Inquiry”) said: “Now, chemists say, illegal use of the drug, Clenbuterol, is rampant at East Coast tracks, most recently in a series of drug abuses that has influenced the outcome of races and stumped racing laboratory chemists.”

A September 23, 1982 Times article said, “Some trainers apparently obtained the drug, a respiratory aid, through researchers conducting clinical investigations on horses under authority from the Food and Drug Administration.

“Federal sources say that investigators…may have uncovered an operation for illegally importing Clenbuterol and other drugs.”

And so it went, newer members joining the clenbuterol club each year and benefitting at the expense of others, all the way up through the 1980s and into the 1990s, by which time the jig was up when the drug was legalized to “even” the playing field.

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2 thoughts on “The trajectory of an illegal drug and its repercussions”

  1. Sid,
    Great piece
    Advances our conversations about racing and medication
    By light years.
    What an industry, huh
    We’re served by forgetting
    our own history.

  2. Well done! Just one of the long-lasting implications has been trying to identify which horses were “treated” and then became stallions or broodmares which “surprisingly” failed. There are some champions on the list.

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