It’s no secret that issues of illegal drug use have been a continuing problem in the horse racing industry. Dating back centuries, a number of different performance-enhancing drugs have been discovered, and eventually banned, that have allowed horses to run faster, heal quicker and ease the pain of injuries along the way. However, these drugs can be very dangerous to the well-being of both the horse and its jockey, thus their use carries the weight of serious penalties by various national organizations, such as the United States Equestrian Federation.
One of the latest drugs that was discovered in the horse racing scene just a few years ago was dermorphin. A hepta-peptide and natural opioid that is 30-40 times more potent than morphine, dermorphin is isolated from the skin of the waxy monkey tree frog (Phyllomedusa sauvagei), native to South America. As stated in an article, it was originally used by native people throughout Amazonia to improve hunting skills by heightening sensory acuity and kill the pain of hunger and thirst during long hunts, experimental use by non-native travelers eventually began.
Dermophin is actually a “protective secretion” from the frog which it produces as a defense mechanism and while under stress. Hunters typically capture the frogs, staked them to the ground — with each of its four limbs tied to sticks. As explained in an article, as the frog is immobilized in this spread position, it produces an abundance of the protective secretion from its skin. This secretion is then scraped off of the frog and collect before the reptile is eventually set free.
While this practice dates back several centuries, dermorphin was first discovered in the horse racing world in 2011. Commonly referred to as “frog juice,” it first confused veterinarians and others in the industry because there were no tests that detected it and many in the beginning did not even know how it worked or what to watch for when given to horses.
For example, dermorphin does not produce the same effects in horses as it does with humans. Rather, an article states that the components of dermorphin creates “increased locomotor activity,” meaning trainers usually see rapid movements or pacing in their horse after the drug is administered intravenously shortly before post time. This is thought to convert to an increased capacity for speed on the track.
The article goes on to explain that this is because unlike humans, horses have far fewer and less sensitive mu receptors in their brains. When mu receptors in horses are activated it creates a different affect than the sedation and pain killing feelings that are produced when these receptors are activated in the human brain.
“It is very difficult to produce any kind of sedation at all with an opiate in the horse. The horse is really unusual in that regard,” Dr. Rick Sams, director of the HFL Sport Science Lab said in the article. “This has nothing to do with analgesia [pain relief]. They aren’t good analgesics. You need to dissociate these substances from analgesia.”
Because of this, Dermorphin isn’t just useful to trainers who have lame horses in need of some help to appear sound on race day—its ability to increase locomotor activity means it would manipulate any horse’s performance. This has caused Dermorphin to be classified by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) as a Class I drug. It is a prohibited substance, which can result in significant penalties.
While many in the industry had heard rumors dermorphin being used, labs were originally unable to detect it until a testing facility in Denver tweaked one of their procedures and discovered the drug. Right off the bat, more than 30 horses from four different states tested positive for the substance.
“This whole thing has really taken us by surprise,” Charles A. Gardiner III, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission, said in an article. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time. We’re fighting back federal intervention. We’re under attack and losing our fan base. Fans believe that the sport is dirty, that there is cheating. And here we have an obvious attempt to cheat.”
Currently, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and its Affiliates have zero tolerance for trainers who use drugs like dermorphin, which they have stated has no legitimate use in horses. According to Phil Hanrahan, CEO of the National HBPA, “Dermorphin is doping. Those who use dermorphin should be severely punished.”
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Neogen recently introduced an ELISA screening test that offers ultra-sensitive detection of dermorphin. For more information, click here. Neogen also has a comprehensive line of assays to detect more than 300 major drug analytes and metabolites. For more information, click here.