Science, Public Perception Clash on Drug Testing

As the industry continues to grapple with use of medication--legal or illegal--in racehorses, will science or public perception win out?

As the industry continues to grapple with use of medication--legal or illegal--in racehorses, will science or public perception win out?

That debate played out yet again July 20 during the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association summer convention in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Horsemen suggest they’re caught in the middle given highly sensitive drug tests, varying testing procedures from state to state, and environmental contamination they claim can’t be avoided.

Science says a trace-amount positive for cocaine, a prohibited substance, could be a positive in name only because a horse’s tongue tie may have triggered it with no intent on the trainer’s part. To the public, however, it’s a cocaine positive that fuels widespread speculation of cheating in racing.

“Scientifically, it may be correct and harmless,” Peter Burnett, chairman of the Virginia Racing Commission and chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said during the workshop of the National HBPA Medication Committee. “But to the public, it can be harmful. While we’re in a transition of science, we need to be realistic from a political and fan-base basis and move away from things that can do irreparable damage to the industry.”

Dr. Steven Barker, chemist for the Louisiana State Racing Commission, six months ago reported on research that indicated trace amounts of therapeutic medications have been found in stalls, water, and dust in barn areas. During the July 20 workshop, he said bacterial, fungal, and metabolic contamination is an issue as well.

Barker said there is evidence legal substances can be converted to illegal substances through metabolism. He said the recent positives for aminorex, a methamphetamine-like substance, could have come from a conversion of levasimole, a common de-wormer.

“We need to know what we don’t know,” Barker said. “How do you eliminate drug contamination? You can’t, and now you have more to worry about.”

Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said the operative word in such cases is “intent.” The RMTC and others have devised a system whereby positives will be fully investigated to determine if they resulted from cheating or environmental contamination.

Waterman said any detection of benzoylecgonine--a urinary metabolite of cocaine--indicates a problem, even if it’s a groom that’s a cocaine user. He said any such finding shouldn’t be ignored.

“I’m not sure you ever want to make those low levels disappear,” Waterman said in response to suggestions that testing thresholds be set for cocaine, a Class I substance that can impact performance. “We don’t want it on the backstretch, no matter where it comes from.”

Barker said the public should be educated on things such as environmental contamination so unsuspecting horsemen aren’t branded as cheaters. “You cannot hang a big red ‘C’ on someone based on a trace level,” he said in reference to cocaine.

Similar concerns have been raised about anabolic and androgenic steroids, which the racing industry plans to regulate by banning all but a handful of them. The effort is picking up steam, and Dr. Rick Sams, director of the University of Florida racing laboratory, said the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association will prohibit use of steroids in horses competing in graded stakes effective Jan. 1, 2008.

Steroids increase blood volume, muscle mass, and stamina, Sams said, but “it’s hard to say if they increase performance.” Regulators don’t want to take any chances, given the public’s negative view of steroids in other sports.

“The reason we exist is the public, who can’t lose confidence in the product,” said Burnett of Virginia, one of a handful of states that already regulates steroid use in horses. “I don’t think there’s a point in having a debate. You’re trying to swim up Niagara Falls, trying to convince the public steroids are OK for the sport.”

Ed Martin, president of RCI, noted the clash of science and public perception. And he said laboratories and chemists contribute to the conflict.

“Regulators don’t tell labs what to do, and chemists can’t reach unanimity - so there is no unanimity,” Martin said. “We need to be careful of the signals we send to the public. The general public doesn’t understand science.”

The workshop included yet another discussion over withdrawal times and threshold levels. Withdrawal times are the established cut-offs for administration of legal medication, while threshold levels govern the amount of medication a horse can have in its system.

Dr. Thomas Tobin, a University of Kentucky pharmacologist and adviser to the National HBPA, said the “language a regulation can be held to is a threshold.” He said that, if the levels aren’t published, they become the opinion of regulators because they can be changed without horsemen’s knowledge.

Waterman said he’s not comfortable “with saying a level is the right level” because of the possible ramifications. “I think we need to do some work on this,” he said. “I’d hate to be part of an organization that threw out a number that five years from now turns out to be an open door to use cocaine. We’ve got people involved in our sport that frankly would be willing to do anything to get to the finish line first.”

Martin used the example of a 65-mile-per-hour speed limit. “That’s the withdrawal time,” he said. “I don’t know where they set the radar gun--that’s the threshold.”

Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling, who chairs the National HBPA Medication Committee, said Florida is working around the problem in regard to cocaine. If a horse tests positive under 100 nanograms, the trainer receives a $1,000 administrative fine - but it doesn’t go on his or her record.

Stirling said one such trainer investigated the circumstances in his barn and found that a groom had been using cocaine.