Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Want to Restore Fans’ Trust? Go Raise the Money

By Mark Berner

The top three trainers at Gulfstream Park through FEB 3 are Jorge Navarro (29-121 .240), Todd Pletcher (25-102 .245), and Jason Servis (20-44 .454). Which doesn’t belong and why? If you said Todd Pletcher, take another guess.

Of the three, Servis, the trainer with the highest current win percentage, is the only one never to have served a suspension for a positive drug test on one of his horses. All three have been fined but only Servis never served days, according to

Servis has four drug violations from 11 rulings, Pletcher has three drug violations from 14 rulings, and Navarro is three for 11. The remainder of the rulings are mostly clerical, and a few are Lasix violations, either overages or failure to administer same.

This is not to say that Servis, Pletcher and Navarro are all in the same boat but it does indicate that testing labs are not capable of catching anyone who may be doing any significant doping.

Drug testing in North America is based on price, not quality assurance. The Jockey Club, Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association try to create minimum standards for testing.

However, the incentive is for drug labs to work as cheaply as possible as state commission budgets for testing is of the lowest priority. Whatever the cost, racing is not getting what it pays for.

Resultantly, laboratories use the easiest method available, (mass spectrometry/ELISA) which limits detection of the more exotic performance enhancers, even though there are tests available if only they would look.

If you are a trainer wanting to cheat, go to the state with the lowest level of test funding, no out-of-competition testing, and set up shop. Unfortunately, excuses given by major racing jurisdictions for a lack test funding are not very credible.

The cost of developing scientific tests capable of standing up to legal scrutiny range from $100,000 to $200,000. Tests are not developed unless there is strong evidence that a specific performance enhancer is being used, a chicken-and-egg scenario.

Sometimes the testers get lucky and discover something in the laboratory, but most often it is deep-throated sources that are tipping off the authorities.

Micro dosing of many substances is more effective than larger injections of the same substance. The process involves taking a smaller portion of the amount required and dosing it incrementally every day.

This is in common use for many drugs such as synthetic thyroxine, which is/was routinely prescribed and administered daily in many barns. It raises a horse’s metabolism so that it eats more and can withstand more aggressive training.

Selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs) are most effective for the micro-dosers. By employing this method, there is a shorter half-life for the drug and detection becomes even more challenging.

Now combine this with trainers who routinely take 30-45 days between starts “training up” to a major race and micro dosing starts to have significant effects. Detection of these substance becomes very difficult as the metabolic signature in plasma and urine diminishes quickly.

SARMs are the “Version 2.0” of the testosterone like substances that I covered in previous columns. SARMs provide the ability to design molecules that can be delivered orally and can selectively target receptors in disparate tissues differently.

SARMs help build lean muscle and are most effective when stacked, commonly using two or more each day. There are hundreds of SARMS. The most common stacking SARMS are Ostarine, Andarine, Cardarine and Ligandrol. A two or three stack of these SARMS is often used in cycles ranging from 30 to 90 days.

Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor delta (PPARδ) and other modulators/angonists is a group of drugs that are somewhat similar to SARMs but target a specific nuclear hormone receptor PPARδ rather than androgen.

PPARδ changes metabolic activity. In normal exercise the expression of PPARδ is increased, resulting in increased oxidative (fat-burning) capacity and an increase in type I fibers (route/distance muscle type). Using this class of drug brings more oxygen to the muscles.

What these drugs do is target and enhance this response resulting in both a ‘cut’ phenotype [fit looking horses] and significantly improve performance in distance races by converting fast-twitch muscle fibers to the more energy-efficient, fat-burning, slow-twitch type.

Cardarine is what is being used most recently. A positive test for this drug was found in Minnesota in August, 2018. Both the Association of Racing Commissioners International and RMTC placed it on the banned substance list following the finding.

Other similar modulators are Acadesine/AICAR, commonly given in the stack of AICAR and Stenabolic. Meldonium, the drug that exposed Maria Sharapova, has a similar effect. It was tried a few years ago but a test for it has been developed only recently.

Growth hormone secretagogues and Hypoxia-inducible factors (HIF) agents is groups of drugs that target the regulation of energy homeostasis and body weight. The most used is Ghrelin, a peptide hormone that regulates appetite and the distribution rate of energy use.

Targeting this hormone makes horses eat and helps with recovery from exertion. Macimorelin is one such drug that targets this response. Growth hormone-releasing hexapeptide, a small molecular-weight peptide, is effective when administered orally. Stable, it is more economically priced than other peptides seeking a similar effect.

HIFs are transcription factors in the body that respond to decreases in available oxygen in the cellular environment, a.k.a. hypoxia. There are a set of peptides that have been developed for anemia, kidney disease and cancer applications. Because of their ability to stimulate red blood cell production they are attractive performance enhancers.

Four such HIF agents in Daprodustat, Vadadustat, Molidustat and Roxadustat have been developed in the past few years. And they have been found in human athletes despite not being available for general medical use.

WADA has only just developed tests for these substances. They each have varying structure are an “area of active interest” with racehorses according to Dr. Rick Arthur, world renowned DVM and advisor to the California Horse Racing Board.

Doping horses is race fixing, yet the penalties for doping are not strong enough. Offenders must be charged with attempting to affect the outcome of a sporting event, which requires legal proof.

There also needs to be an owner responsibility rule that mimics the trainer ultimate responsibility rule. Suspend a few owners and they likely will chose trainers with less glitzy win percentages.

If a few owners and/or trainers are found guilty of tampering with a sporting event beyond the shadow of a doubt, off to jail they should go. If the cheaters don’t quickly shape up, they need to be shipped out.

Defending our sport gets harder each day. If we do not take care of racing’s problems, we will have problems if we want to continue racing.

© Mark Berner 2019

Written by Mark Berner

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