Without Definitive Test, Battling EPO Use Big Challenge

Officials said the classification of erythropoeitin -- the blood-doping agent commonly known as EPO -- as a prohibited practice has curbed its use in some jurisdictions but a definitive test for the substance is a must if any regulation is to have teeth.

Medication was just one of the topics discussed during the initial sessions of the joint meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, Harness Tracks of America, and Racetracks of Canada March 13 in Hollywood Beach, Fla. But the subject spilled over into another arena when regulators were called key to any successful enforcement policy.

"Until there is a definite positive test, there is very little that can be done," said Lonny Powell, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the organization that adopted the prohibited-practice model for substances that can't be tested on race day. "Prohibited practices have been adopted by many jurisdictions, and that has been a beacon of light."

Currently, there is a test for EPO antibodies. It has produced "positives" in Louisiana, New York, and Texas, but because it's not definitive, participants can only be warned and then monitored. Dr. Ken McKeever, the Rutgers University physiologist who is working with Dr. George Maylin of Cornell University to develop the test, said the evidence is strong even without the test.

"A horse shouldn't produce an antibody unless it is exposed to that drug," McKeever said.

McKeever suggested out-of-competition testing, which has been considered by some jurisdictions but not implemented because of logistic and legal concerns, would be effective for blood-doping agents and other substances. Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium said testing at times other than race day has been discussed as part of the group's proposed national policy for uniform medication and testing.

"We're trying to figure out the most equitable way of approaching it to protect due process," Waterman said. "We need to be able to define exactly what we're testing for ... it's not going to be a crapshoot looking for all kinds of therapeutic medications."

McKeever said New Jersey and New York are considering another approach: classify use of EPO as an equine health problem to facilitate out-of-competition testing. That way, a horse might be scratched before it races, and post-race testing wouldn't be an issue.

Dr. Michael Weaver, director of veterinary services for the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, said even though Canada has a uniform national drug-testing program, it has the "same serious problem with detecting new and difficult drugs. We're just as concerned with EPO as anyone else. We're just not sure how big a problem it is in Canada." He did say the drug's classification as a prohibited practice has "slowed trade" in the country.

The CPMA gets eight-tenths of 1% of every dollar wagered in Canada for drug testing and research. Weaver said two laboratories test 55,000 to 58,000 samples a year. In addition, the CPMA publishes a booklet for all industry participants that spells out guidelines for more than 100 medications.