By Dr. Scott Stanley and Dr. Rick Arthur
Nothing in Thoroughbred racing is simple, and drug testing is no exception. The test barn is still referred to as the “spit box,” harking back to the time when all that was done was to look for heroin or cocaine crystals in saliva samples. We would never have a positive today by those standards, but those were simpler times. The first real veterinarian didn’t show up at Santa Anita until Louis B. Mayer brought Dr. John Peters out from the East in 1939. When Dr. Jack Robbins started practicing in California right after World War II, he became the third veterinarian on the entire California circuit. Today, there are more than 40 practicing veterinarians on the Southern California circuit alone.
Horse racing was ahead of other sports in implementing a drug-testing program, and in many ways we are still the pacesetters. We cast a broader net for more drugs than any other sport. I doubt most Little Leaguers would pass a post-race urine test at our least proficient lab.
The one exception is anabolic steroids, but that will soon change.
Why is there such a perceived problem with drugs in horse racing? Besides the established perception problem, there are three converging factors. The first is the increase in veterinary care. There are simply more medications being administered to more horses. This mimics the same situation in human medicine, where more drugs are prescribed today than in the past. The second is the rapid and dramatic increase in the sensitivity of laboratory testing in the last decade. Picogram (one part per trillion) level positives are not only possible, they are appropriate for some illegal drugs. Half a teaspoon of a substance in a thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools is the equivalent to a picogram. The last factor is rules that are unprepared for either of these first two developments.
Most positives are inadvertent. Some come from poor barn management procedures and others from a lack of understanding of pharmacokinetics and drug testing. Even with a reasonably professional effort to obtain useful data, often not enough information is available to determine accurate withdrawal times. Research has been inadequate to provide meaningful and reliable withdrawal times even ignoring laboratory variability. This ultimately leaves trainers, veterinarians, and eventually owners in unknown territory.
The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium is pursuing pharmacokinetic research to enable jurisdictions to determine threshold level/withdrawal times on the most problematic medications. This is not an esoteric exercise; it is simply good business. More than 80% of the positives called in California are mistakes with no intention to alter a race. The same is true across the country. These positives waste time and money and damage reputations for everyone in horse racing and for the sport itself. The public doesn’t understand the difference between one drug and another. All they hear is drug, racehorse, and horse racing. The goal is to avoid unnecessary positives and focus our testing resources on drugs that matter.
The RMTC research effort is scientifically rigorous. We aren’t talking about dosing a few fat old ponies out on pasture. We are looking at 20-plus horses in race training to provide statistically meaningful data. The samples are simultaneously analyzed at multiple laboratories in multiple jurisdictions to ensure uniformity. This is work that has been woefully lacking in the past.
Limited withdrawal time data recently became available on the RMTC’s Web site (rmtcnet.com). Unfortunately, the majority of this information is anecdotal, because too little scientific information exists for many drugs. For the record, the same pharmacokinetic data that can be used to avoid positives can also be used to prosecute violations.
The RMTC’s goal is to bring a solid scientific foundation to drug and medication regulation. Everyone needs to know what is expected of them every day, and that includes our drug testing laboratories. The black box approach of the past doesn’t work today. Good research will bring all of horse racing to a level needed to protect the integrity of our sport.
Dr. Scott Stanley is an associate professor at the Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Laboratory.
Dr. Rick Arthur is equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board.