Dennis Janson: Before the horse whisperer, came the horse whistler who tested racehorses for drugs

CINCINNATI -- Drug testing in sports is increasingly sophisticated. At least to a point.

Saturday’s Kentucky Derby claimed the attention of millions of race fans, from regular rail birds to once-yearly devotee’s devoted solely to the drama of the most exciting two minutes in sports who this year watched as favorite California Chrome won easily.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, thousands of functionaries no doubt did their jobs —large and small —to make sure the event went off without a hitch. That brings me to the topic of drug testing. They do it for college basketball players after big games, so it is only reasonable that random urinalysis is employed for four-legged thoroughbreds, too.

Here’s hoping the stewards who preside over the process have come up with new methodology because the one I witnessed years ago at then Latonia Race Course seemed fairly primitive. The head of track security, whose name escapes me after all these years, invited me to see how track officials kept the action fair and square, by acquiring a urine sample from the winner and another horse chosen at random from the same race.

Each mount was ushered into a small stall off the main paddock and tethered to a metal post to await testing. Horses, unlike humans can’t be handed a plastic receptacle for collection of a specimen and sent off to do their business. Iffy at best. Hence, for lack of a better term, the necessity of a ‘p*ss whistler’.  

I was told that, for whatever reason, a horse will respond to a low frequency whistle by emptying its bladder. The night in question this task fell to a middle-aged man absent most of his front teeth, which apparently enhanced his ability to emit magical tones. Despite his fairly ragged appearance, he was the Pavarotti of puckering.

Armed with a long metal rod with a loop welded to the end, he inserted a Dixie cup into the hole and held the apparatus beneath the horse's apparatus. And then he started to blow. A low, mellifluous, sustained, bass line of urine-inducing notes that were eventually rewarded.

Sooner or later.

I asked Mr. P.W. if all the horse were so accommodating.

“Well not always. Some I barely get started and they’re finished. Others….Well I can blow ‘til my lips go numb and blue before they pass enough to test. You never know.”

Nor do millions of race fans who see only the bright, shiny side of the Sport of Kings. Oblivious to the fact that despite all the high-tech advances in horse training and tracking, success or failure might hinge on a Dixie cup and a few well intoned notes.

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