Through the first 10 months of 2014, U.S. horse racing appeared on pace to register its fewest positive drug tests for anabolic steroids since the industry moved to outlaw the drugs from racing in 2008-09.
But six positives for the anabolic steroid stanozolol from Nov. 19 to Dec. 19 at Laurel Park ended all that, revealing that at least some trainers are still willing to chance administering the substances to horses in training. While some Laurel horsemen suggested failure to adjust to Maryland's new medication policies tripped them up, an examination of race records provides evidence that horses received stanozolol while in training.
It's important to note that when U.S. racing put its anabolic steroid policy in place, it opted not to go with a complete ban as trainers and veterinarians made their case that anabolic steroids are useful in energizing horses and restoring their appetite when they return from illness or injury. Regulators aimed to keep anabolic steroids out of racing when they recommended withdrawal times of 30 days for stanozolol (formerly sold as Winstrol), boldenone (Equipoise), testosterone, and nandrolone.
Based only on the number of positives reported each year to the Association of Racing Commissioners International, racing appeared to be making progress in eliminating anabolic steroids in racing. A Blood-Horse study of the RCI database found 16 positives for anabolic steroids in 2010 but that number had dwindled to just three for the first 10 months of 2014.
That changed when the Maryland Racing Commission reported the recent positives for stanozolol involving trainers Scott Lake, Hector Garcia, A. Ferris Allen III, and Jerry Thurston. One more steroid positive for a horse trained by Garcia would be reported at Laurel in January 2015.
Some of the trainers cited suggested they'd been following a withdrawal time of 30 days recommended by a veterinarian, but the race record of horses involved throws some dirt on that explanation. Three of the six horses with stanozolol positives in 2014 at Laurel had started within 23 days of the race in which they had the positive.
Home Team Stables' Lady Vivien, trained by Lake, started 22 days before the race in which she tested positive for stanozolol. Joseph Besecker's Kylie's Cozy Kid, also trained by Lake, started 15 days before the Dec. 18 race he had a positive. Winning Player, owned by Haras Los Samanes Polo Racing and trained by Hector Garcia, started 23 days before her stanozolol positive Dec. 19.
As for performance-enhancing effects for those horses who tested positive for stanozolol at Laurel? The treatment certainly didn't hurt their chances. All six won their races; events that offered total purses of $112,558. (The horses were disqualified and the purses in those races redistributed.)
Racing Medication and Testing Consortium executive director Dionne Benson has described the industry's goal of keeping anabolic steroids out of racing, but allowing for their use when there is a therapeutic need for a horse out of training.
"The racing industry is in agreement that racehorses should not compete on anabolic steroids," Benson said on the RMTC website. "In practice, that means that anabolic steroids must be withdrawn from a horse's medication regimen at least a month before its next race."
While industry policy aims to keep anabolic steroids out of racing, a review of positives for anabolic steroids compiled by RCI raises concerns that their use isn't limited to horses out of training. For horses receiving an anabolic steroid as part of a therapeutic treament, you'd expect to see an extended layoff. But since Jan. 1, 2010, the vast majority of positives for anabolic steroids have occurred in horses on a typical racing schedule.
Of the 47 horses who tested positive for anabolic steroids from 2010-14, two-thirds raced 28 or fewer days before the race in which they tested positive. In fact, 24 of the 46 horses (52.2%) started within three weeks of the race that resulted in the positive test for an anabolic steroid.
RCI president Ed Martin said policy makers aim to formulate rules that allow for the proper treatment of horses, but prohibit abuse of medication to gain an advantage in racing.
"If there is a medical need, an injured horse that needs recuperative treatments, then why would you deny that horse treatment as long as it's kept far enough away from race day that it doesn't affect performance?" Martin said. "But for too many people, this becomes part of a routine. When challenged, they'll tell you the horse needs it. But let's understand better what's going on with these horses."
New Maryland rules prohibit a horse from racing with any level of stanozolol in its system. In January 2014, the state launched new rules in line with the National Uniform Medication Program that aims to have consistent medication rules from state to state. To begin 2014 though, Maryland still allowed a 30-day withdrawal time for stanozolol and a race-day level of the anabolic steroid in line with that withdrawal time.
In 2013 the RMTC recommended eliminating withdrawal times and a threshold level for stanozolol because it no longer was being produced as the U.S. FDA-approved medication known as Winstrol and would only be available in compounded forms. The new policy would make any level of stanozolol on race day a violation.
Because that RMTC recommendation didn't come along until September 2013, Maryland didn't include it in the new rules put in place in January, but the state began working to add the policy to its medication rules in spring 2014. The updated stanozolol rule was put in place Oct. 1 in Maryland.
Maryland Racing Commission executive director Michael Hopkins said the new rule was publicized.
"Our stanozolol policies were put in place at a public meeting. It was not changed behind closed doors," Hopkins said. "This was public record; we had open discussions on two occasions."
The stanozolol violations at Laurel resulted in Maryland regulators being the first to take action under the uniform rules on a prominent case. Two of the trainers involved, Lake and Garcia, are facing added sanctions because of multiple violator provisions written in those uniform medication rules.
Maryland officials suspended Garcia for nearly one year and will fine him thousands of dollars for his multiple violations at Laurel. Garcia had two stanozolol positives in December, one in January, and a December positive for the tranquilizer xylazine.
Lake is facing a suspension of 120 days and a $1,000 fine. Lake was assigned a 60-day suspension for his violations at Laurel but because he also had a stanozolol positive in June 2014 at Penn National Race Course, he's facing an added 60 days. The 120-day total that would run consecutively. Lake, who in 2013 had a positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone at Parx Racing, is appealing the Maryland decision. Hopkins expects the MRC will consider that appeal in the next four to six weeks.
Hopkins said the MRC is comfortable operating under the uniform rules.
"It's pretty straightforward," Hopkins said. "There's no gray area in it."
Of the anabolic steroid positives in the RCI database, all nine violations in 2014 were for stanozolol, which has been problematic for regulators. With Winstrol no longer available, compounders have filled the void by offering their own versions of stanozolol. Compared with FDA-approved drugs, there is little federal oversight of compounded medications and state oversight of such operations can vary.
A University of Florida study of compounded stanozolol products determined that they cleared the systems of most horses in 40 days. But in one case it cleared a Thoroughbred's system in 21 days while it lasted 56 days in another horse's system before being completely gone.
Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said such variance in potency has been seen from one compounder to another and even within products produced by the same compounder.
Such potency variance could endanger the horse's health or lead to a positive drug test when the vet or trainer operates under the withdrawal times that were put in place for Winstrol.
"To me using stanozolol is a huge crapshoot just because of the limitations of compounding pharmacies," Scollay said. "There's a lot more risk in using (compounded stanozolol) than other products."
Martin added that racing regulators continue to look for ways to gain more power over track veterinarians, but he continues to encourage state vet boards to enforce their policies. For instance, many states require veterinarians to list a diagnosis and treatment plan for a horse receiving medication. Martin has seen evidence that such requirements, when it comes to racetrack vets, are too often ignored.
"I think it is incumbent that the record-keeping requirements of state vet boards be adhered to," Martin said. "That's the only way we're going to understand what's going on with the horse. Is a treatment in place to treat some ailment, or is it to do something else?"