Kentucky has performed random testing for blood-doping antibodies in racehorses of all breeds for more than a year, but now it's testing for the actual proteins, a process that could put more teeth in penalties.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority is now using procedures similar to those in Ontario, Canada, where tests for erythropoietin (EPO) and related substances have led to lengthy suspensions and hefty fines in Standardbred racing. Kentucky moved to a new ELISA test, which is now screened at the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania lab's tests led to the Ontario sanctions. The racing industry has long sought a definitive test for blood-doping proteins rather than antibodies.
KHRA executive director Jim Gallagher said the state began using an ELISA test developed by Lexington-based Neogen Corp. The test is believed to be more effective in the initial screening process for blood-doping substances.
"We've heard the test might have better results, so we put in the rotation similar to what Canada has done," Gallagher said. "We haven't had a lot of hits on (previous) test kits. There's an assumption in the industry that Neogen testing kits lead you to doing protein-type testing.
"You need to have very good screening techniques that lead to actual confirmation hits. There was concern the test kit we employed wasn't leading us to the best type of results."
Gallagher said there has been one instance during a previous meet at Turfway Park in which a racehorse tested positive for EPO antibodies. Under current regulations, the horse was banned from racing for a few months. Gallagher said the rotating tests are performed on Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Quarter Horses that race in the state.
Kentucky and other racing states are struggling with implementation of out-of-competition testing, which is required because blood-doping agents are administered over time, not on race day or the day before a race. There are questions as to how far regulators can go in testing horses at non-association training centers; Ontario, Canada, now requires owners and trainers to agree to random blood tests for horses before they can enter their stock in races.
Gallagher said Kentucky has a list of training facilities at which official workouts are recorded and reported to Equibase. Those "approved off-stabling sites," he said, would fall under KHRA jurisdiction.
"That's where this is going with this EPO stuff," Gallagher said. "You have to test horses between starts, not the day of the race. It seems to me we'd have access to do barn searches or take blood samples."
Ohio, where the racing commission recently received an addition one-quarter of 1% of handle for drug testing, is implementing EPO testing. Ohio State Racing Commission chairman Norm Barron said the goal is to achieve confirmation of the actual proteins in all racing breeds.
"To be honest, (the procedure) is very expensive, but I think it's worth it," he said. "In Ohio, we have authority at (racetracks), and primarily go on suspicion and information we hope is reliable. They're playing Russian roulette--if we confirm something they've done, it's a lifetime suspension."
Ohio also has purchased seven "radiometers"--blood-gas analyzers--that will test Thoroughbreds for "milkshakes," or high levels of TCO2. (Standardbreds have been subject to random TCO2 tests.) The commission is in the process of writing rules for the tests, which would be performed before a race.
If high levels are confirmed, a horse would be scratched. Under the new rules, Barron said blood will be drawn from every horse and tested in a radiometer.
Kentucky currently employs random TCO2 tests for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, but the testing methodology is different. Thoroughbred blood samples are sent to the laboratory at Iowa State University for testing several days later; Standardbred blood samples are tested in a blood-gas analyzer at the track after they are drawn.
During meetings of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, some members questioned the difference in testing methods among breeds and debated the effectiveness of pre- and post-race testing.