Thursday, March 02, 2006

The War on Baking Soda

The theory of "blood buffering" is not complicated. A horse running full out consumes glucose stored in its muscles in the form of glycogen, creating, as a by-product of this process, lactic acid. Since elevated levels of lactic acid are associated with muscle fatigue (an idea NOT universally accepted in scientific circles), lowering the acidity of the horse's blood before a race just might slow down the rate of acidic buildup, allowing the horse to perform at his best a little longer, whether a sixteenth of a mile or just a few strides, who knows? A medical doctor of my acquaintance once told me that managing pH levels in humans OR horses was tricky, at best, but nevertheless backside lore is replete with stories of old time trainers who topped off their evening feedings with a couple of scoops of baking soda and reputedly had great success at the races.

Of course, in racing, if some is good, more is better, and too much is nirvana. A product called "Milkshake", produced by a Michigan company, hit the market. It appeared to be made up primarily of molasses and some alkalizing agent, and came in a huge tube from which it was administered into the horse's mouth with a caulking gun, a clear violation of the hay, oats and water policies of many states, yet this product was openly marketed in backside tack shops without a stir.

Did it work? Who knows? Many said it did, but many said it had adverse affects on horses which were prone to pulmonary bleeding too. Nevertheless, by the early 90's enough people were conversant with the lactic acid issue that backside experimentation ran wild. Before long it was rumored that trainers everywhere (especially the ones with freakish win percentages) were "milkshaking": tube feeding massive amounts of baking soda, along with thyroid supplements, brown sugar, electrolytes, and whatever else they could get their hands on, very close to post time. Unfortunately, while almost anybody can come up with a favorite recipe, not everybody can competently run a stomach hose through a horse's nostril. Veterinarians, fearing liability, increasingly declined to participate in this procedure, leaving the horses at the mercy of amateurs. Undoubtedly, a small number of horses were killed by botched administrations, but no one knows for sure.

Soon backside buzz about the benefits of blood buffering morphed into a steady drone about the "crookedness" of "doping" horses. Inevitably, the talk wafted into the offices of the suit-wearing people who regulate and write about our business, and a new crusade was born. Vowing to "do something" about this new scandal, state authorities raced to implement tests that would provide evidence of milkshaking, and race track managements scrambled to do something EVEN BEFORE state rules could be implemented. Problem solved, with congratulations all around.

But I have a few questions. Wasn't tubing large quantities of anything a few hours before a race always illegal, everywhere? If the rules against flagrantly bad behavior can't be enforced, what good is another test going to do? And what, exactly, are they testing for? Baking soda, a perfectly legal substance whose ability to enhance a racehorse's performance is completely unproven? What shall we zero in on next? Corn oil? How about DMG, a substance the old Communist Bloc countries gave their Olympic athletes back in the day, to the universal cry of "cheating" from everybody who wasn't using it? This product is sold in every race track tack shop in America. How many other legal substances can we elevate to the status of morphine and caffeine before common sense kicks in?

Just curious.

1 Comments:

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4:40 PM  

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