Laboratory officials and racetrack investigators encouraged regulators April 18 to make a bigger commitment to options beyond the post-race test, including out-of-competition testing and backstretch monitoring, to improve the sport's integrity.
Presenting, through telecommunication, on a panel at the Association of Racing Commissioners International's annual conference on equine welfare and racing integrity, Dr. George Maylin, the long-time director of the New York Equine Drug Testing and Research laboratory, outlined the limitations of post-race testing in an era of constantly emerging compounds and altered drugs that potentially could be used in horses.
Maylin said investigative work on the backstretch allows more efficient, targeted post-race testing, which he said can sometimes be like searching for a needle in a haystack because of the thousands of variations of compounds. He noted that information on the Internet even makes it possible for "kitchen chemistry," in which substances can be doctored by the end user.
"The fact of the matter is these shotgun techniques don't have the specificity that we think they have," Maylin said of screening for a wide variety of substances in a post-race sample. "When the information you're after is in the background noise of the screening, it's very difficult to get a good fingerprint. Think of it as a fingerprint with four or five other fingerprints sitting on top of it."
Maylin said that through backstretch investigations and confiscations it becomes possible for labs to be aware of potential problem substances that are out there and develop focused tests for those substances.
"There are 80 different forms of EPO (erythropoietin) available on the online market and they all have different amino acid compositions and they all generate a different weight in testing," Maylin said. "I know of no lab in the world that can test for this many different EPO copies."
With the ever-changing compounds used in blood-doping, Maylin called for more research and the development of a better screening test for the various forms of EPO. He also believes that drug compounds used by humans to increase brain activity and concentration likely will find their way onto the backstretch as well.
"As regulators, we have to be concerned with this," Maylin said. "We have to have methods developed in order to test for them and regulate them... If we're going to develop tests for these types of compounds, we have to unleash the purse strings.
ARCI president Ed Martin called Maylin's presentation "very sobering."
Brice Cote, a backstretch investigator at owner Jeff Gural's three Standardbred tracks in New York and New Jersey, said regulatory investigators need to develop good sources to find out what is taking place on track backstretches. Cote noted that regulators need to make backstretch security a point of emphasis because law enforcement—which has placed an emphasis on issues like homeland security—does not have the resources to make racing a priority.
"The only way we're going to stop this is by intelligence-based policing and out-of-competition testing," Cote said, noting that honest horsemen who have struggled to compete with cheaters can serve as good sources. "Many good, honest horsemen who love the horses don't have a chance (to compete with the cheaters). We have to clean up the sport or it's going to go away.
"Out-of-competition testing saved baseball. The one year they started out-of-competition testing and home runs went in half. The same thing can be done here but you can't rely on anybody but yourselves to do it."
Dr. Scott Palmer, Equine Medical Director in New York, said that while out-of-competition testing is more expensive, New York has seen a significantly higher rate of positives, registering at about 1 positive per 50 tests.
John Wayne, executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Commission, said out-of-competition testing and boots-on-the-ground surveillance are terrific deterrents but racing commissions face challenges. He said in the past year the state eliminated funding for one of his investigators.
Dr. Scott Stanley, of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, outlined initial efforts in California to develop an equine biological passport for horses that can detect unnatural changes in a horse's body, making it especially effective in detection of anabolic steroids and blood doping. Such an approach already has been used in human sports.
He said data has been collected from about 80 Thoroughbreds in California under the state's out-of-competition testing rule. Once baseline testing of a horse is completed, future tests can pick up on any unnatural changes.
"Any changes that occur could be identified as doping or a doping technique. It doesn't have to be a targeted substance. It allows us to detect the use of compounds that we haven't even heard of yet today because those horses' individual physiology can't produce those types of changes," Stanley said. "So we can pick up on compounds today and those developed in the future."
Currently the equine biological passport is an additional tool for regulators in California but Stanley said eventually rules could be rewritten in the state to allow it to be used for enforcement of the state's equine drug rules.