A tiny, South American frog is at the heart of a recent doping scandal that threatened Oklahoma's billion-dollar horse racing industry.
Regulators last summer uncovered a scheme where a handful of trainers were using a performance-enhancing drug that can be drawn from the back of the frog to rig races at Remington Park and elsewhere.
The so-called “frog juice,” described as 40 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is suspected of helping horses run faster, possibly by masking pain.
So far in Oklahoma, 15 horses have tested positive for the drug, 10 of which were quarter horses trained by two brothers, Roberto Sanchez-Munoz and Alejandro Sanchez-Munoz, both of Vinton, Texas.
The Oklahoma Racing Commission recently suspended the brothers from racing and cases are pending against three other trainers for positive tests in five horses.
Meanwhile, the owners of Remington Park in Oklahoma City earlier this month won court approval of a decision to ban four other trainers, including some alleged to have employed the drug both in Oklahoma and at tracks in other states.
“It damages the integrity of the sport,” racing commission Executive Director Constantine Rieger said. “Surely when you have the industry being talked about in a negative light, it's obviously going to damage the public interest and confidence in racing,”
Rumors of a wonder drug that rocketed race horses to the front had circulated for three or four years among trainers, grooms, jockeys and others who inhabit the back sides of race tracks across the country.
Still, post-race drug tests conducted on all winners and other random horses failed to find any evidence of cheating.
“It's sort of like steroids in baseball,” said Scott Wells, Remington's general manager. “When someone is taking an unfair advantage, the word gets around. Some of these trainers had never been heard of, in terms of their accomplishments, then, all of a sudden, they're doing exceedingly well.”
All but one of the 10 horses trained by the Sanchez-Munoz brothers that tested positive for demorphin finished either first or second in their races at Remington Park, which offers the largest quarter horse purses in the nation. The brothers' tainted horses won purses for their owners totaling $55,720. Trainers and riders each typically get 10 percent of the purse.
“We knew who was running hot,” said trainer Russell Harris, of Bandera, Texas, as he stood outside a stall barn at Remington Park one afternoon last week.
“I was on the verge of just quitting,'' said Harris, who has trained 2,000 winners, seven world champions and won $18 million in purses in his 40-year career. “It was very frustrating. You couldn't compete.”
Faced with growing suspicions, complaints from trainers and worries about losing credibility with fans, about four dozen industry leaders held a two-day summit at the New Orleans fair grounds in October 2011 to address the issue, said Debbie Schauf, executive director of the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association, who attended.
As a result, testing laboratories redoubled their efforts and by the spring of 2012, with the aid of some seized material, a Denver-area lab cracked the signature code of a drug that had baffled track veterinarians.
In addition to the 15 Oklahoma horses, the new test also detected demorphin in eight race horses in New Mexico, 11 in Louisiana and one in Nebraska. Positive tests are believed to have occurred in other states, but have not been publicly confirmed.
By comparison, only 47 of the more than 320,000 samples tested nationwide in 2010 contained any substances that could be considered horse doping, according to a study by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. In Oklahoma, only four other horses have tested positive for such drugs in the past five years.