CHRB Committee Examines TCO2 Strategy

Alternatives considered to testing every horse for bicarbonate levels.

Testing for bicarbonate levels has nearly eliminated the incidence of "milkshaking" Thoroughbred racehorses in California, leading officials to consider alternatives to testing every horse that is entered at the state's tracks.

A discussion about changing the strategy currently employed -- in which each horse has a pre-race blood sample taken for post-race testing -- was a subject of the California Horse Racing Board's medication committee Nov. 17. The meeting was appropriately held at the Ken Maddy Laboratory at the University of California-Davis, the state's official equine drug-testing facility.

"We really have this well in hand," said Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director. He noted that there have have been just two violations of the state's limit of 37 millimoles per liter of blood serum or plasma in 50,000 samples tested this year.

Many horsemen believe that increasing the bicarbonate level helps horses stave off fatigue. The decision to test all horses who are competing was to ensure a level playing field.
The issue, though, has become cost. Tracks have been footing the bill for the program since it began in 2005. Arthur said the tests -- which in addition to the actual screening at the Maddy Lab also includes collection of samples and their shipping, as well as paying on-site trained technicians --  works out to about $11 per horse or about $600 to $800 a day.

John Harris, the CHRB's vice chairman, estimated that when the cost of maintaining "protection barns" for tracks in each half of the state is factored in, the cost of TCO2 testing is around $600,000 per year. "The tracks kind of have a gripe," he said.

Arthur said that the tracks wanted all horses tested initially because officials believed that big bettors weren't wagering on California races. "The whales have come back, so there are advantages to the tracks in testing all the horses," he said.

"We have a very successful program," Arthur added. "The question is whether we really need to do this much." He noted that new penalty guidelines, which include redistribution of purse and possible fines and suspension of the offending trainer, as well as streamlined enforcement, also act as deterrents. 

Dr. Scott Stanley, who directs the drug testing program at the Maddy Lab, told the committee that there were two main alternatives: adopting a pre-race test method and using a random system to reduce the number of horses that are tested.

Stanley said that he has looked into purchasing or leasing portable radiometers, which would be used at the tracks to conduct pre-race testing of samples. He said the units would cost $38,000 apiece and there would be additional cost in adding trained technicians to handle the testing.

He noted that there would be several drawbacks as well. If the CHRB were to continue testing all horses, the procedure would require major pre-race time constraints -- a half-hour to handle an eight-horse field. It would not be possible to do a split sample test in the event a trainer refuses to scratch a horse that exceeded the allowable limit. And there would be the problem of legal defensibility during a later hearing.

"This is not to say pre-race testing can't be done, but we would have to have a different type of protocol," Stanley said.

In other matters, the committee received updates from the CHRB/UC Davis Postmortem Program and on the university's on-going research of racing injuries and track surfaces.

Arthur also reported that major strides have been made in creating an equine injury database for horses and in developing more thorough methods of reporting and cataloging information on racetrack fatalities in the state.