Jennie Rees, a communications specialist and advocate who counts the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association among several clients, filed this report on a March 10 session of the National HBPA convention in Las Vegas.
Dr. Andy Roberts, a long-time racetrack veterinarian in Kentucky, believes testing horses for illegal drugs outside of a race can be an important step in getting rule-breakers out of the game. However, he does not want to see horsemen asked for a muscle biopsy, hoof trimming, or even a semen sample from a young colt in training.
Roberts said those invasive procedures could be required as "other biological official test samples" under literal interpretation of the model rule governing out-of-competition testing in Thoroughbred racing recently approved by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. The ARCI, which represents regulators of horse and greyhound racing throughout North America, approves model rules that it recommends its members implement.
"The devil is always in the details with these things," Roberts said March 10 as part of the National HBPA Convention's medication panel at the South Point Hotel & Casino. "I am pro good regulation. I don't have any issues with racing commissions wanting to come test my horse, as long as it's legit.
"Out-of-competition testing is basically anything that is not a post-race test. It's a very broad scope. It could be the day you enter the horse. It could be a month before a horse runs in a major stakes or two days after you race the horse. It's a legitimate area of interest to protect every single person in this room. There are drugs with very short half-lives. So it's very difficult to detect them, but their actions might hang around for a long period of time. So we have an interest in wanting to make sure that every horse loaded in the gate is competing on a level playing surface."
Roberts also is on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's Equine Drug Research Council and various veterinary boards. He stressed he was speaking only for himself during a talk he called "Out of Competition Testing: The Promise, the Pitfalls from a Veterinary Perspective." His expressed the fear is that the expanded model rule could have unintended consequences, wind up "looking for crimes that don't exist," and should be tweaked.
Roberts said ARCI's 2007 model regulation, adopted by about half of ARCI's member commissions, pretty much did the trick. That rule sought to find blood-doping agents, designer anabolic steroids, and gene-doping, he said.
However, Roberts says the new version goes "far beyond what I would consider to be the legitimate boundaries.
"I have no problem with horses in training being tested, but we need to determine what training means. The rule for the most part is pretty close to acceptable, and the old rule, in my opinion, was perfectly acceptable."
Roberts' concerns include that the rule, if implemented, could apply to "a number of therapeutic medications that many of us use on a daily basis."
Under the out-of-competition model regulation, a veterinarian would have to file a treatment plan with the commission before administering those medications, even with a horse who is weeks or months from racing. That could delay giving prompt treatment by needlessly adding another layer between "the horseman and the horse," he said.
Other problems could be medications that are not specifically approved by the Food and Drug Administration for horses still have a legitimate and routine purpose, as well as homeopathic and herbal substances, Roberts said. Currently they trigger no violation being used when a horse isn't racing, but the new proposal appears to change that.
While authorities might seem unlikely to go to that extreme, Roberts said, "the law is the law. I think we need to make the law reflect reality."
Dr. Thomas Tobin, the University of Kentucky equine pharmacologist and toxicologist who is a regular consultant to the National HBPA and its Kentucky affiliate, discussed hair testing in horses. Among his points were that the process is considerably more time-consuming than testing for a drug in urine or blood, it requires a washing step, and protocols for testing procedures in horses are lacking, including the important washing step.
He also noted white hair will show much less of many drugs than dark hair, with the snow-topped Tobin acknowledging that his pigment-challenged hair today would reveal far less of some medications than 20 years ago.
Because the process can reveal the presence of some drugs for more than a year, mane and tail hair are preferred over the short body hair, he said. Mane and tail hair also grow at a consistent pace throughout the year, in contrast to body hair impacted by cold and heat. Tobin said an advantage with hair testing is that the sample doesn't require refrigeration.
Tobin said caveats include that a single dose of a drug with a short half-life might not be sufficient for hair detection. It also requires a relatively long hair segment and some medications spread out in growing hair more than others, making it difficult to approximate when a substance was administrated.
"This suggests that it's prudent to determine the hair-binding characteristics of a substance before drawing time or concentration conclusions from hair data," he said.
Tobin said the Society of Hair Testing, which deals with the human version, says hair analysis can contribute to "doping" analysis in special cases, in addition to urine, but is not suitable as a regularly employed technique.
"They are very careful to make the point that a negative hair result cannot exclude the administration of the detected drug and cannot overrule a positive urine result," Tobin said, adding that he doesn't agree with that as a blanket statement. In the case of a negative urine result, a positive hair result can demonstrate drug exposure during the period prior to the test sample's collection, the society says.
There have been some high-profile medication violations thrown out recently, and Indiana equine attorney Peter Sacopulos provided a rundown of measures horsemen should take if charged with a drug positive.
Sacopulos said it is critical to get everything in the record during the administrative process, because that is all the court will consider on appeal. He said that could include disputing dates or times, lining up experts, thinking about a defense, finding out the science behind determining a violation occurred, whether a rule change occurred during the time frame, examining the chain of custody of the sample, if the test barn's protocol manual was followed, and if the laboratory provided a complete report. He warned against letting officials rush horsemen prematurely into a hearing.