Panel: Invest in out-of-competition testing, investigators

By: Jennie Rees

Posted: April 19, 2017

Increased out-of-competition testing and investing in more skilled investigators and research into emerging threats is the most effective way to catch—and, more importantly, deter—cheating in horse racing.

That was the big takeaway from the drug-testing forum on opening day of the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s annual conference on Equine Welfare and Racing Integrity in Charleston, S.C.

The panel featured Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of California-Davis, which conducts that state’s horseracing testing; Dr. Anthony Fontana of Truesdail Laboratories; and, speaking via teleconferencing, Dr. George Maylin, the longtime director of the New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Laboratory. Also on the panel was Brice Cote, a former Standardbred driver and detective in the New Jersey State Police racetrack unit who heads the integrity efforts at the Meadowlands, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs harness tracks.

Even if the panelists expressed varying beliefs on the prevalence of rule violators, they all emphasized the importance of out-of-competition testing—taking samples from horses in between races—as a way to detect substances that no longer show in traditional blood or urine tests from samples taken immediately after a race but still could have an impact on a horse’s performance.

“The only way we’re going to stop this is by intelligence-based policing and out-of-competition testing,” Cote said. “Out-of-competition testing saved baseball. They started out-of-competition testing, and home runs (were cut) in half.”

“Most jurisdictions have very good drug testing,” Stanley said afterward. “We do robust testing, and most of the labs are accredited as well. Now we look at big challenges. And when you look at big challenges, you can make those mountains into molehills, or you can take them off one at a time and get them knocked down. We are doing both.

“We are taking the ones that have legitimate concerns for the industry, like cobalt when that came up. We found that, set a threshold, established rules and made that go away—quickly. Steroids, anabolic and corticosteroids, those now are well-regulated. These are big wins for the industry. They weren’t low-hanging fruit, either. We still have some challenges that have now climbed the tree; they’re higher up. And we need to knock those off.”

Stanley discussed the potential of “biological passports” as a tool that could be used in out-of-competition testing. The testing would provide a baseline result to which subsequent testing both pre-race and between races could be compared.

“If they change abruptly, if the bio-markers tell us this horse was given an anabolic agent, we don’t have to detect it,” he said of the exact substance. “We’d be able to say, ‘This horse cannot naturally produce this profile. It has to be enhanced.’ ”

“Informed testing, focused testing and targeting testing is something we need to put more emphasis on,” ARCI President Ed Martin said. “Out-of-competition testing should be expanded, but its real value doesn’t come until you’ve expended the research dollars to be able to detect the substances not being detected in the existing out-of-competition testing.”

In other business April 18 at the conference:

A panel of administrative veterinarians discussed keeping horses’ treatment records and the trust issues that arise among equine practitioners, horsemen and regulators as to proper use.

Dr. Scott Palmer, Equine Medical Director for the New York State Gaming Commission, said regulators getting horses’ treatment records can benefit horsemen and veterinarians because of the research made possible. He noted that Depo-Medrol was the most popular corticosteroid used in joint injections up until 2012. Unknown at the time, the medication could pool in other tissue and stick around longer when used in hocks and stifles—trickier joints than ankles, Palmer said.

“We discovered that Depo-Medrol could be found in the joint in a blood test of a horse as long as 100 days after the administration period,” he said. “The idea that you go on the (Racing Medication and Testing Consortium) guidelines and see 21 days for Depo-Medrol is a risky business. It wasn’t accurate, because there was such a variation in the amount of time that the Depo-Medrol would be discoverable in a post-race blood test.”

Palmer said that, with what was learned from knowing the location of injections and the timing of administration, veterinarians were cautioned about using Depo-Medrol in the first place. He said that today in New York, if a veterinarian uses Depo-Medrol, the horse must be tested for the substance before running.

“That’s a good example how we can use the research findings from the medical records, the treatment records to protect people and help create a better regulatory policy,” Palmer said.

(Jennie Rees submitted this report on behalf of the Association of Racing Commissioners International)