Anne M. Eberhardt

Laboratories: Drug Testing More Challenging

Sensitive equipment and legal therapeutic drugs can be difficult combination.

An April 22 roundtable discussion on anti-doping programs around the world revealed several common issues, including a need for more financial resources and dealing with highly-sensitive testing in an environment in which therapeutic medications are regularly used in training.

Laboratory directors from the United States, Great Britain, and Hong Kong took part in the discussion held during the Association of Racing Commissioners International annual convention in Tampa, Fla. They acknowledged some labs are more proficient than others, but it seems regulators only get what they're willing to pay for in regard to testing.

Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of California, Davis suggested out-of-competition testing is an important tool to deter cheating, but it's not widely used in the U.S. He said the testing of equine hair samples is another tool in the arsenal, but it currently costs $400-$500 per sample.

"You could use it to complement out-of-competition testing," Stanley said. "Drug testing is all about deterrents. When we have a (positive) finding in the lab, we have already failed."

The lab directors didn't offer details on staffing or budgets. They did, however, say advanced testing equipment that can test to a millionth or a billionth of a gram is a mixed blessing.

"Increased sensitivity in testing has been a dramatic change in the past 10 years," said Dr. Mary Robinson of the University of Pennsylvania. "It has created a different situation for veterinarians to administer therapeutic medication and (for trainers) not to be hit with a drug violation."

The National Uniform Medication Program in the U.S. includes a list of 26 commonly-used therapeutic medications and suggested withdrawal times for the drugs, which aren't permitted on race day. Dr. Clive Pearce of the LGC Group in Great Britain and Dr. Terrance Wan of the Hong Kong Jockey Club said those countries have screening limits for 28 such substances.

Screening limits and withdrawal times basically serve the same purpose: They offer horsemen guidance on when to stop treating horses before races.

"Many laboratories use sensible limits of detection," Wan said. "This can eliminate problems with accidental violations."

Pearce, in describing testing protocol in Great Britain, said 9,000-10,000 samples are tested each year, and there are a little more than 30 positives on average. Of those, two-thirds are for therapeutic medication overages.

Stanley said the accepted use of therapeutic drugs in racehorses for training purposes around the world made use of the term "zero tolerance" problematic.

"Zero tolerance is a misnomer," he said. "For therapeutic drugs, you can't have zero tolerance as an answer. There has to be an establishment limit (for use). For prohibited substances, if you want to have zero tolerance, that makes sense."

In response to a question about drug policies in human sports versus horse racing, Stanley said: "The large number of athletes that compete on therapeutic drugs is astonishing. A lot more are used in human athletes than in racehorses."