Can Public, Fans Understand Drug Testing?

Making sense of the nuances of equine drug testing isn't easy.

Therapeutic versus non-therapeutic. Class 4 therapeutic drugs that can impact a racehorse’s performance. Testing in urine versus blood. “Positives” for drugs that may not have impacted performance but led to fines, suspensions, and damaged reputations. Nanograms and picograms. And something called “zero tolerance.”

The sensitivity of equine drug testing is a big plus for the racing industry, but it also has created confusion. How are the public and media supposed to understand when some industry participants can’t make sense of it?

Such is the challenge facing the industry, members of which met Dec. 7 in Tucson, Ariz., for the one-day Racing Officials Accreditation Program Conference on Officiating Horse Racing. The topic was equine medication and drug testing, and prosecution of related cases.

In between the morning and afternoon sessions, officials were asked to comment on the issues of public perception and education. For the most part, the general public, and even racing fans, don’t understand what a positive test really means.

“I think a case like (trainer) Kiaran McLaughlin’s makes a case for an industry-recognized scientific advisory panel to which can be referred positive calls to determine the appropriateness and significance of positive findings,” said attorney Alan Foreman, who conducted the seminar. “I would be willing to venture the Kiaran McLaughlin case would not have been pursued (had such a panel reviewed it).”

McLaughlin is serving three concurrent 30-day suspensions in Kentucky for detection of a bronchodilator in three horses at the Keeneland fall meet. In all three cases, the level of detection was less than one nanogram—one-billionth of a gram. The case has fueled ongoing concern about uniformity in drug testing and threshold levels for substances.

In addition, only urine samples were said to be tested in the McLaughlin case. During the Dec. 7 ROAP seminar, scientists said blood and serum testing has become the preferred method, in part because the effect of a drug in a horse can be quantified.

Implementation of a scientific panel would require approval of individual racing commissions.

“I think it would be an invaluable tool,” said Foreman, who represented McLaughlin in the Kentucky case. “We finally are at a point where I think it can happen.”

Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, acknowledged formation of such a panel has been discussed in the “grand vision” for the RMTC. He said the RMTC is an unbiased body with access to the type of experts needed for case reviews.

“Clearly, however, this would have to be initiated by each racing commission,” Waterman said.

Concerning education of the public, Waterman said the RMTC is looking at Web site upgrades that would provide basic explanations for people who are interested in knowing the nuances of medication and drug testing. He said the RMTC also is trying to develop press-release language that could serve as a template for racing commissions to explain drug positives to the public.

A disconnect exists. A 2009 survey conducted on behalf of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association indicated three out of every 10 core racing fans believe horse racing isn't on the up and up. Performance-enhancing drugs are a major concern even though the large majority of positives are for therapeutic medications.

During the seminar, Dr. George Maylin of Cornell University discussed pharmacology—the study of drug actions. Maylin said testing is moving away from urine samples because blood samples can better pinpoint the effect drugs have on horses.

It’s not cut and dry. Maylin said low-level drug concentrations raise the question of whether the substances had any impact on performance. “Determination of the impact of drugs on maximal performance is difficult if not impossible,” he said.

There are other complications. For instance, a picogram—one-trillionth of a gram—of one drug can have more of an effect on a horse than one nanogram of another drug.

“You have to look at the big picture in order to draw a conclusion,” Maylin said.

Dr. Scot Stanley of the University of California-Davis explained the sensitivity of drug testing and called mass spectrometry, which uses liquid and gas, a “chemical footprint” for a drug. He said it’s key for regulators to have such “forensically defensible information” when they pursue positive tests.

Waterman sought to dispel what he believes is one of the industry’s biggest myths: zero tolerance. He said zero tolerance is impossible because every lab uses limits of detection, no matter how small.

“We hear it time and time again,” Waterman said, “but labs aren’t detecting any drugs down to zero. It’s impossible.”

Waterman also said it's dangerous to follow the industry drug classification system to the letter--or number. He noted there are Class 4 therapeutic medications that can impact performance.

"Classifications have been taken too seriously," Waterman said. "They are relied upon too much by this industry."

Stanley said there are four keys to a drug-testing program: What are you looking for? Where are you going to look for it? How are you going to find it? And what does it mean?

The latter is difficult to answer given the fact laboratories may employ different standards and testing levels, and racing commissions may have different policies when it comes to calling drug positives. Foreman said ongoing work in the area of lab accreditation and consolidation never has been more important.