The "milkshake" has enjoyed some popularity as a performance-enhancer for racehorses, although it is banned in all racing jurisdictions. This "milkshake" doesn’t involve milk and syrup; the primary ingredient is sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda.

This metabolic milkshake is proposed to work on high school chemistry principles of acid/base neutralization. With high-intensity exercise, there is a build-up of lactic acid in muscles, leading to fatigue. The theory is that high doses of bicarbonate make blood and muscle tissue less acidic, providing buffering capacity to offset the build-up of lactic acid, enabling the horse to go farther, faster, with less fatigue. It is given via a nasogastric tube.

The practice of milkshaking is believed to have originated in Australia in Standardbreds. In the United States, it is also more commonly employed in Standardbreds, but has been tried in Thoroughbreds. One racetrack practitioner says there was a time prior to milkshakes being illegal when veterinarians would give electrolytes with or without bicarbonate to racehorses prior to a race, especially during hot, humid summers. But they abandoned the practice even before it was banned because of the appearance of tubing a horse on race day and the perception that the concoction was performance-enhancing.

A milkshake consists of several ounces of sodium bicarbonate dissolved in a gallon of water. Other ingredients might include confectionery sugar, electrolytes, or nutritional substances such as creatine (thought to increase endurance). The theory is that milkshakes must be given four to eight hours prior to a race to have the desired effect at post time.

A racetrack practitioner says the contents of the milkshake are not harmful, but an occasional horse might have diarrhea as a side effect. One beneficial effect noticed by trainers was that their horses seemed to recover from their race quicker the next day, thus they would be back on their feet quicker and appear less fatigued.

The executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission, Francesco Zanzuccki, worries that horses can be in danger when dosing is inappropriate or administration is improper, leading to placement of fluid in the lungs rather than the stomach, especially if lay people try to tube the horses.

Illegal Practice

Milkshaking is used to manipulate the performance of a racehorse without the knowledge of bettors or other horsemen. Some in the business say it doesn't help the fatigue factor with all horses, and there is the possibility that the improvement in performance in some horses might be dose-related, but no one knows what dose will help a particular horse run better.

Most racing jurisdictions use blood gas testing as a milkshake deterrent. Steve Barker, PhD, MS, distinguished professor of veterinary medicine at Louisiana State University, is responsible for the racing drug testing program for his state. He feels post-race testing for blood gas (CO2) is more reliable than pre-race testing, although it does have the disadvantage of requiring a 90-minute cooling out period before sampling.

Normal blood levels of CO2 average around 31. Barker said most states consider values over 37 to be positive. In New Jersey and Louisiana, positives were reported when the testing program first started, then decreased once the horsemen realized bicarbonate could be detected.

Milkshaking rarely puts a horse at great risk, but the practice is an attempt to gain unfair advantage and is illegal. Good monitoring and enforcement programs appear to be working as deterrents in most racing jurisdictions, and research is looking into the science behind the practice. However, the debate on this topic will probably go on for a long time.

About the Author

Bob Fidanza

Bob Fidanza is a free-lance writer who is based in Manalapan, N.J.

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