A Louisiana research project that shows racehorses can come into contact with drug residue just about anywhere on the backstretch has some horsemen calling for an end to “zero tolerance” drug-testing policies and creation of a national panel to examine data before inadvertent positives are called.
The study, presented by Dr. Steven Barker during the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Medication Committee meeting Feb. 9 in Hot Springs, Ark., revealed small quantities of six drugs were found in samples taken from ship-in stalls, the test barn, and pools of water at Louisiana racetracks. Even dust samples were tested and trace amounts of substances were found.
Barker, the chemist for the Louisiana State Racing Commission who plans to publish his findings, said small amounts of phenylbutazone, flunixin, naproxen, caffeine, furosemide, and cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, were discovered in samples. Flunixin, a widely used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, was the most prevalent, the study showed.
Some drugs were detected from just wiping the interior of stalls.
“We could have gone to other areas of that stall and found other drugs,” Barker said during his presentation to horsemen. “Clearly, the backside of a racetrack is heavily contaminated with drugs. Hopefully, you’re scared.”
With highly sensitive testing methods and zero-tolerance policies, a trainer could be charged with a positive for having one molecule of a substance in a sample, Barker said. Other potential sources of trace amounts of drugs are feed, pasture grasses, improper handling of samples, and mistakes by veterinarians, he said.
Barker said even with precautions in stable areas, drug residue wouldn’t be eliminated. Therefore, he said threshold levels for drugs are a necessity.
“First of all, we need to abolish the concept of zero tolerance,” Barker said. “It’s an over-simplified attempt to regulate drugs. There’s no sense to continue that nonsense. You can’t eliminate drug contamination, so you have to approach it at the interpretation-of-data end.”
Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HBPA and chairman of the National HBPA Medication Committee, criticized laboratories and regulators. He said labs get business “by showing regulators they can find things,” and regulators “believe any time there is a (positive) it was an attempt by the trainer to compromise a race. A lot of people judge labs by number of calls.”
Stirling said the suggestion of a drug-positive review panel should be taken to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium for consideration. Barker said the panel would “offer some kind of political cover for the industry to establish better thresholds.”
The RMTC is in the process of having research performed to establish threshold levels for almost 50 therapeutic medications. Barker, Stirling, and other said thresholds are important given regulations that don’t keep in step with technology.
Barker claimed about 80% of drug positives fall under the category of having no impact on a horse outside of 24 hours. “These comments I’ve heard that any level (of a substance) could potentially have an impact on performance … oh, crap.”
In another presentation, Dr. Thomas Tobin of the University of Kentucky discussed caffeine and its metabolites. Tobin, an adviser to the National HBPA, noted the variation in threshold levels for caffeine in various jurisdictions--30 nanograms per milliliter in urine in Hong Kong to 1,000 nanograms per milliliter in Canada.
“Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance on earth,” said Tobin, who is continuing to research the drug. “It’s a hunting license for a chemist.”
Dr. Robert Lewis, a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and currently the organization’s representative on the RMTC, said the RMTC has been effective at getting people to focus on the issues. He cited the group’s recommendation to regulate steroids, an action he called proactive.
“The RMTC at first had competing agendas, but no one group dominated,” Lewis said. “It has been a largely educational process. It has been rewarding to watch the evolution.”
As for Barker’s research project, Lewis said it should be presented to the RMTC.
“It opens everybody’s eyes to hear this kind of material,” Lewis said. “I think it takes peer pressure from the leaders of this industry to get the attention of regulators in these different states. The disparity in the way labs in this country handle post-race samples has been a huge problem.”