When Is Tough Drug Testing Too Tough? Trainers, Scientists Voice Concern About Contamination

by | 02.16.2017 | 6:25pm

As post-race drug testing technology continues to improve, some veterinarians and scientists have begun to wonder: at what point do tests catch “pharmacologically irrelevant” amounts of a foreign substance?

In a recent article for Trainer magazine, writer Denise Steffanus notes some drugs are known to live in the environment for a longer period than others, and receiving and test barn stalls are not hosed down in between horses, which means soiled bedding may be left behind from one horse to the next. Intact males with a tendency to mouth or sniff new environments may be able to ingest enough of a drug residue to cause a positive test, according to some scientists. Bute, methamphetamine, flunixin, and tramadol have all been implicated in confirmed cases of contamination or have been found in university research to linger in the environment sufficiently to cause an overage in a horse.

Horsemen have expressed concern that well-meaning visitors to their barns, including owners, could accidentally contaminate a horse sufficiently to cause a positive test by feeding the horse a treat out of their hand if they've recently ingested cough medicine or caffeine.

In other words, they say, testing technology has outpaced the sensibility of regulations guiding it. Dr. Steven Barker, formerly a director of the Louisiana State University Equine Medication Surveillance Laboratory, suggests testing thresholds should include minimums levels for drug positives based on how much of a substance would cause a physiological impact on the animal.

Supporters of harsh drug testing measures say trainers are responsible for what goes into their horses, and not maintaining a zero-tolerance approach would simply give license to unscrupulous connections to behave poorly and push the envelope.

Horsemen also point out that the publication of drug offenses also provides the public with the impression all racehorses are running on drugs, which may not be the reality.

“To most members of the public, a drug positive is a drug positive. They don't differentiate or comprehend the difference between an intentional violation with a performance-enhancing drug, an overage of a therapeutic medication, or a low-level contamination,” Steffanus writes.

Read the complete article at Trainer magazine.

  • wjfraz

    Here is a question that puzzles me. Why do supposedly healthy horses need so much medication to race? I know Lance Armstrong and others used drugs to enhance performance. It seems that it is just to enhance performance and that is just wrong. Have one of the vets explain why a very healthy horse needs $13-15 hundred dollars a month of vet work. And try to make it simple for a simple man. If they can and I doubt they can.

    • Annie Oakley

      A very healthy horse, as you put it, shouldn’t need $13-$15 hundred dollars of vet work a month. 3 or 4 shots of Adequan for joint health ($60 a shot) and 3-4 shots of ESTM to help maintain their immune system and respiratory health ($40 a shot), and a few odds and ends (tranq off of days off to allow them to train relaxed and lessen the chance of hurting themselves whilst very fresh) should be about it. Unfortunately most horses in training are getting ulcer medications (omeprazole) which can cause kidney and liver damage as well as lowering magnesium levels instead of being on a feed / training program which minimizes the chances of ulcers. Clenbutoral is also given to healthy horses, it causes weakening of the heart muscles and decreased lung function with long term use…just what you want in a race horse…

      • Racing Fan

        The industry does not care to clean up it’s reputation. Take away slots and you’d have 4-5 tracks left in the United States.

      • Larry Sterne

        I have never understood why a sound horse needs joint shots It like taking an aspirin when you do not have a headache but you might get a headache too much selling by vet or too little thinking by owner and trainer .if horse needs all these drugs legal and illegal t h e should not be racing.

        • Larry Sterne

          oh yea , tranq for off days ?? I seen trainers give ace as the horse cools down….. when does the horse ever get a chance for a clear mind? then they ace them to shoe them. what ever happened to horse training.

          • Racing Fan

            Ace is the least of the ills in horse racing.

          • Larry Sterne

            so easy to use a needle vs training a horse. you can’t have just any yo yo hot walk. ace is a crutch to replace training they even ace the pony horses vs getting the proper training.

          • Annie Oakley

            They are expected to thrive in what is for them a very unnatural environment. Most should not need tranq to be shod unless they are getting glue ons and need to be very still while the glue sets up. After just walking the shedrow for a few days after a race most get extremely pumped up. When they go back to the track the first day or so you’d like to see them have a relaxing jog not leaping through the air or trying to run off. Ace actually helps a horse learn to relax, you don’t keep them tranqued all the time, just to ease them through times when they might hurt themselves otherwise.
            Adequan is not a “joint shot” it’s a muscle shot. It helps keep the joints healthy while they are under the tremendous pressure of training and racing. Most trainers skip the Adequan and give them bute pre and post race which will cover up a fair amount of damage and tear up their digestive system…I’d rather give the Adequan and try to help rather than cover up. Prevention is always better than rehabbing…really you should try your hand at training horses if you have such strong views on how other people should train.

          • Larry Sterne

            my point is many do ace the horse for routine shoing. the horses don’t have proper training before they come to track and many trainers don’t want to live up to their title of trainer

        • Racing Fan

          It’s not that it’s joint injections it’s that they use the same debilitating drugs as they did in 1960. There are great non steroid options now that actually repair cartilage rather than kill it. Not all medication is cheating or bad for the horse but steroids are the cheapest so that’s what they use.

  • Erin Casseday

    I wish that I could read the whole article. The link does not really help. Bummer.

  • Racing Fan

    The discussion about drugs/cheating should include a real discussion about starting at the bigger culprits.

    Owners: Should be assigned points. There are owners who SEEK trainers who have positives so they can collect money and not face sanctions. I think if they hire a trainer with medication points they should be assigned points and their horse on vets list for 60 days if their horse gets a positive.

    Vets: Vets should get assigned points when medications are given within withdrawl time and vet records should be routinely audited by state racing commissions. Also, vets trucks should be randomly checked and any “compounded” medications should be discarded and the vet fined. Only labeled drugs that are approved should be on the back side.

    • Old Timer

      Hold on ..”any “compounded” medications should be discarded and the vet fined” Vets have a lot of meds that are compounded in their vehicles, why? Because there’s no equivalently approved FDA or USDA approved drug. While I agree with your sentiment, it doesn’t actually solve the problem and in fact makes things worse for the horses that have an actual medical treatment that needs to be attended too.

      • Larry Sterne

        how about taking the horse out of training if that difficult to treat. then no need to worry about off label use or compounding. Oh but the trainer would lose his day money. There is no good reason for a sound horse to have a high vet bill.

    • Really?

      Many meds are compounded to make them easy to administer to horses. For example, rather than crush pills of ulcer medication, compounding labs make it into a palatable syrup. Bute is compounded into flavors so horses will eat it. Compounded meds are not the issue if the pharmacy is responsible.

      • Racing Fan

        But there is no oversight of the compounded labs and it’s been shown on this very site that the potent class 1’s are coming from compounded labs and labeled as a normal drug. Your response doesn’t address the lack of oversight of these companies.

        • Ben van den Brink

          Stop administrating compounded drug,s which do no have been labelled by the FDA.

  • David Stevenson

    “too many moving parts?” There are a number of practices that could help in this regard. Grooms and stable hands should be included in an educational process in both Spanish and English. Their inclusion in aspects of the rule book dealing with best practices would be a wonderful exercise for those in current and aspirational developments into the training ranks. Backstretch participants like to learn and we have the beginnings of a network through the chaplaincy that is already in place. Put the basics back in place and don’t rely on the view from the 30,000 foot level only.
    A look at the Japanese system of pre-race practices and the seriousness necessary for the education of horse-handlers can help enormously.

  • Shannon

    The RMTC will not produce the data for scientific review on how they developed their thresholds.
    A case at Delaware Park was thrown out when after multiple requests the RMTC refused to produce the data used to establish the thresholds that they have sold to racing commissions all across the country. Slick Meister Alan Foreman, the Vice Chair of the RMTC was quoted on the matter of the RMTC not producing the data on how the RMTC came up with the thresholds, “it takes years to get these things published”. The case at DEL was thrown out as another attorney put it, “the RMTC thresholds are based on a foundation of sand.

    • Ben van den Brink

      You just need no tresholds, ZERO is the only answer in the eye from the public.

      Saves a lot of money . No RMTC needed anymore.

      • Larry Sterne


      • Michael

        Ben, you must have been living under a rock for the past half century. I’ve seen hundreds of your posts believing in zero tolerance. Your problem is your are more than 50 years out of date with current science and technology.

        Earth to Ben, Testing today is done at the pico gram level (1 trillionth of a gram.)

        Your exact words.

        “You just need no thresholds, ZERO is the only answer in the eye from the public.” Result: No Horse Racing any place in the world.

        That’s right Zero Tolerance means no horse racing.

        You Never ever ever ever get to ZERO.
        Anytime any drug medication or substance is given to a horse, or a horse comes in to contact tack with in the environment, so portion of that drug, medication, or substance will be in that horse.
        Every single grain of oats, every stem of hay, every blade of grass, every drop of water, and every breath of air all have environmental contaminants.

        • ben

          At this point, the industry is suffering a long painfull death, without the casino,s racino,s only a very small number off tracks would be surviving.

          Them environmental contaminants are just adding for a small %, to the positives found in general btw. Mostly the source from the contamination is found.

          Since the NAARV is founded to prevent that raceday medication is done by others than private vet,s this kind of reviews are in the news.

          • Dawn

            NAARV The North American Association of Race Track Veterinarians are the most accomplished Veterinarians in the world as far as race horses. These Veterinary Practitioners are on the front line dealing with athletic horse related injuries.

          • Ben van den Brink

            Them vet,s are/were administrating o.a race day medication and much and much more, which is now more and more regulated thanks to NUMP.

            Acceptation is slow but steady in the industry. Cal will also have third party administration in the not so far future.

          • Keith

            You are always Disparaging Race Track Veterinary Surgeons who are highly knowledgeable, skilled and actually practice Veterinary Medicine; yet praise Incompetent Regulatory Veterinarian Bureaucrats.

          • Ben van den Brink

            Opinion differs.

      • Shannon

        Facts and you are never on the same page. There is no such thing as “Zero”. Any time a horse is treated in any way for a wound, vaccinated, preventive medications for parasites, etc. some part of those medications will always be in the horse not only while the horse is living, some portion of theses will be in the horses carcus after death.

  • Peter Scarnati

    Yep. Horsemen and vets have finally gotten it right — drug testing in horse racing is too tough.

    • Drew Mollica

      Glad to see you are still in the game and I pray you and yours well!. But having the insight to litigate these cases and the privilege and ability to work with Dr. Barker his insight is correct. The standards that commissions often use, to call medication overages or positives are often not based upon logic or science. Horses are not tested nor do they exist in pristine environments, cross contamination is a real issue. The recent NY Gloucine (sic) ruling is to say the least not based on science, just made up for a political purpose! (Ues politics not science or reality) Don’t yell “Nurse” yell for common sense! The racing word is not black and white and those who control our game I dare say do not understand our game! Truth be told it is often Racing and Gaming Commissions’ ignorance to real science and due process that causes the problems that permeate the game today. Dr. Barker is a voice of reason in a sea of chaos!

      • Peter Scarnati

        Why hello there Drew. Great to hear from you! I had been aware of your career change a few years (already?) back and here’s hoping all is going well for you.
        If you consider an occasional comment here and there on sites such as this as “still in the game,” well then, I guess I’m still in the game. But that really is the extent of it anymore. Been that way now for years and years. About the only event which holds any remote interest for me is the Derby. I have found that playing table games – blackjack, craps and poker – is a much, much more rewarding (and on-the-level) pursuit these days than any horse racing event could ever hope to be.
        While I truly respect your opinion on matters such as this and agree with some of the points you make, I find it distressing to see where the industry has plummeted to in the past 30 or so years. The rampant use of “medication,” be it “performance enhancing” or “therapeutic” I believe has been one of the single largest factors in the decline. Today’s thoroughbred race horses are merely a shadow of what they used to be.
        As an example, remember when Distinctive Pro dropped into an allowance race at Key when we were hustling at Del and some trainer told us he’d found a better spot at Key?
        My point is, you never see such things happen anymore. Sadly, horses have become so brittle (I think, largely because of rampant medication usage for decades now) that you would never see such a class horse in an overnight race any more, much less run as many times as horses with that kind of ability used to perform.
        In my opinion, anything to cut down on the use of medications of any type can only be a good thing for the game. But, unfortunately, the industry is so far past that point I’m afraid it will never come back.

        • Drew Mollica

          While I am the first to admit the game is not what it was when we toiled long hours at Delaware Park to fill entries under the Larry Abundi (no extra races) and Mr. Baker (great guy) all is not lost. What I have come to realize is while some might posit medication is the issue, i would argue incompetent and ill advised regulators are more of an issue. Common sense has left the room when it comes to these issues of good science and cross contamination. Yes cheaters must be stopped but Due Process and Common sense must carry the day, it is foolish to violate a good hard working person for a pico gram of a medication, when ther is no scientific basis to do so. Further due process is often thrown to the curb as is the case in New York where regulators posit that the accused gets a split sample, when none exists and then falsely feigns good faith when someone with the courage of Bill Mott challenges them. The game will only make a comeback when men and women of good conscious and a sense fair play regulate it. The politics which control racing is destroying our industry! It only those with the courage to stand up to it (Bill Mott, Seth Hancock, Graham Motion, to mention a few and also great advocates like Joe Faraldo, Darrel Vienna, Carlo Fisco, and many others who empower me every day to continue to fight for justice) who call it for what it is (PURE BS) . . . when these voices are heard the game will prosper! Until then it will be a rehash of the same old BS!
          As an aside I do remember working for Larry and Tom and with you and many others old friends for a common goal of make a race card five days a week with no extras and no horses. Lots of fun, lots of work in a bygone era!

        • Just saying

          You mentioned the elephant in the room in your last comment. 30 years ago you would have had to go to vegas or Atlantic City to play table games. Not to mention slots. Keno and lottery play/availability have also increased dramatically. There is only so much gambling money to go around. Now, ironically, racing needs the multiple casinos to keep itself afloat.

      • Larry Sterne

        r u blaming a commission for the trainer and owner using poor judgement by training with a needle? a monkey could be a racing official if the drugs were under control.and all practiced racing in an ethical manner.

        • Drew Mollica

          You introduced a needle into the conversation I did not.
          To the contrary I posit in many of these cases there is no needle at all just bad science suggesting one, and a system predicated on depriving of due process. Ethics are a two way street, I practice in courts all over the country and due process is the rule of law. Not in racing however, it is the opposite, and peer review science should be the template and not the exception . . . again no needles common sense!

  • David Stevenson

    Thanx Reid. Great news. I was aware of the Groom Elite Program but not the entire content. Is it available at NYRA tracks as well?

    • DeniseSteffanus

      See my story about groom training in the November 2016 (issue 42) of North American Trainer Magazine. I detailed Groom Elite and other such programs. You can read it free online at http://www.trainermagazine.com.

  • Bryan Langlois

    This I think is going to be one of those “Never reach 100% consensus” arguments because both sides of the argument are actually valid. They are now so sophisticated that they can detect one grain of table salt dissolved in a Olympic sized swimming pool. So there is the argument for having some sort of amount allowed. The issue with determining what is an amount that actually affects a horses performance is one of finances. You would likely need millions of dollars to research each drug and have a sample size that is representative of the horse population racing in America. You would need trainers willing to subject their horses to such testing to be included, and of course individual variation would need to be taken into account as well. “Zero” tolerance cannot work the way today’s game is set up with the appeals process. I was once a proponent for this direction, but after looking at things more, I am accepting the argument also that investigation and boots on the ground are just as, or maybe even more, important as vigilant testing to the nanogram.
    I also agree with a lot of others here that a concern must be raised over the constant medicating of horses in general that are racing. I know it would never really happen, but a real issue that needs to be addressed is giving these horses that seem to need all of these compensatory drugs to actually be able to compete at some level the time off they need to recover properly. Again, I know economics of the game will never allow that for most smaller stables, but it should be mandatory in some way. I was talking to someone about Clenbuterol and how there are never stories about the “100’s of horses it actually helps who have breathing issues”. I have no argument that it does have a purpose for horses with COPD or other lung issues. My question is more of “Why does every single horse seem to be needing it??”. It speaks to a much larger issue that will eventually lead to, and I know no horsemans group wants to admit or accept it, a contraction of the sport while it reorganizes and then can be able to mildly expand again.

    • With 80% of the human population on some drug or another (prescription or other wise) contamination is a real possibility. The real rub is at these testing levels it will likely not be possible to differentiate between the two. Coupled with the flagrant over use and inappropriate use of the various meds. Seems now days instead of analyzing a issue (horsemanship) the tendency is to medicate first instead of finding out why a horse is lame or sour (bute) ventipulman case in point there are very few that need that from the day they enter training up to the week or two before a race. As far as intergrety goes the industry has been hoisted by it’s own petard and Refuses to understand the customer (betting public) is sick of it.

      • Lehane

        Spot on

  • Lehane

    Trainers are responsible for what goes into their horses. No excuses. The public’s justified perception that racehorses are drugged will remain for as long as the industry allows horses being abused with the overuse/misuse of ‘legal’ drugs. And of course trainers being given slaps on the wrist for drug violations is disastrous for the image of racing.

  • Larry Sterne

    well meaning trainers and owners not an excuse. stable employees giving a chocolate donut is not an excuse shavings not an excuse. owner and trainer responsible for training and maintaining high standards that will not compromise the horse. this is not grade school where u can say the dog ate my homework and expect to get a “oh poor you” response. this is grown up work that demands the highest standards for the sake of the customer (bettor (

  • Larry Sterne

    looks me to the owners and trainers should attend your class as part of the licensing process and they should be required to attend an ethics course as part of continuing ed to maintain their license and if have violation they can’t say I didn’t know to a demanding regulator.

  • tonyharris

    Heard super trainer Jamie Ness just got a 100 day suspension! His wife and cousin will do as they always do! Run the program. Barn won’t miss a beat! How do they allow this?

  • Bad Lucky

    Lyons-mound would agree BUT then he is fighting 2 cobalt positives in the uk harness association.

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