Oklahoma horses doped with 'frog juice' jumped to winner's circle

The illegal use of secretions from a type of South American frog is at the heart of a recent doping scandal that threatened Oklahoma's billion-dollar horse racing industry.
by Phillip O'Connor Modified: March 17, 2013 at 1:47 am •  Published: March 18, 2013

“The system worked once they knew what they were looking for,'' Schauf said.

Known by the scientific name of Pyllomedusa sauvagei, the waxy monkey tree frog is native to the prairies of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. In order to prevent excessive water loss in a very dry climate, the frogs secrete an oily liquid over their skin to prevent evaporation. The opiate-like drug has pain killing properties with no known medical use in horse racing. Racing authorities suspect someone developed a synthetic version of the drug that found its way into the industry.

The drug is injected intravenously, usually about two hours before a race, said Harris, the trainer.

Demorphin has never been tested for safety in horses or gone through any drug trials. Its full effects are not known and because of that regulators fear demorphin could cause injury or death to horse and jockey.

Owners of horses that test positive forfeit any purse and the money is redistributed to the owners of other horses in the race. Trainers in such cases face disciplinary action that can include suspensions and fines.

In the most recent cases, the racing commission imposed 20-year suspensions on both Sanchez-Munoz brothers and fined Roberto Sanchez-Munoz $100,000 that he will only have to pay should he seek to re-enter the industry.

The other three pending Oklahoma cases involve James E. Jones, a thoroughbred trainer at Will Rogers Downs racetrack in Claremore who had three thoroughbreds test positive, and two trainers at Remington, Ralph Muniz and Rodney Harmon, who each had a quarter horse test positive.

There is no recourse for bettors in tainted races, many of whom place cash wagers, making it hard for the racetrack to track. “It would be impossible to make right,'' Rieger said.

Demorphin is just the latest drug employed in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between racing regulators and cheaters who seek a chemical advantage that can go undetected.

Over the years, regulators have discovered a variety of banned substances in race horses, including cobra and cone snail venom, blood doping agents, Viagra, cancer drugs and, now, “frog juice.”

Both Remington Park and racing commission officials stress that doping is rare and that nationwide less than one percent of trainers are responsible for 98 percent of drug infractions. They say horse racing was the first sport to introduce drug testing and tests for more substances with greater sensitivity than any other. Less than one percent of all horses tested come up positive, including for permitted therapeutic medications, Rieger said.

In January, Remington announced a policy that bans horsemen who are facing unresolved positive test results or who are on the suspended list of either the American Quarter Horse Association or The Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbreds in the United States.

The racetrack also teamed with the racing commission to implement a new pre-race inspection program.

Even so, some industry insiders say more regulation is needed if racing is to survive.

“If we don't have more stringent enforcement and more rigid testing, there will be no industry,'' Schauf said.

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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