Hong Kong: Lab Chief Sees Need For ‘Game-Changing’ Approach To Testing

by | 12.11.2015 | 1:50am
Dr. Terence Wan at the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Racing Lab

Sunday's Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin race course will, from a drug control standpoint, be among the cleanest anywhere in the world.

Overseas horses are tested upon their arrival, then will be drug screened once again prior to Sunday's races, standard protocol by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which does pre-race testing on all runners throughout the year. Following the races, approximately 25 percent of runners – including the first- and second-place finishers – will be tested, and split samples will be taken, with some of them stored in a deep freeze for possible “retrospective” testing at some future date.

It's all part of a comprehensive integrity program established by the Hong Kong Jockey Club – one that would be difficult to duplicate in the U.S. or elsewhere. Horses are required to stable at the track, medications are strictly controlled and all veterinarians are employees of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. There is enhanced security, closed circuit TV cameras throughout the stable area and a robust out-of-competition testing program. It's all done with the idea of maintaining confidence of participants, horseplayers and the Hong Kong government.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club's Racing Lab, since 1999 headed by Dr. Terence Wan, is among the most modern and well-financed in the world, with 55 employees and 38 state-of-the-art mass spectrometers. It even has its own closed circuit TV system, with more than 50 cameras inside the lab strategically focused on equipment and samples.

With all that, Hong Kong has one of the lowest positive drug test rates in the world. Over a 10-year period ending in June 2014, only 0.07 percent of post-race test samples were reported as positive: that's seven in 10,000.

By comparison, the average rate of positives from post-race samples of member countries of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities over a similar time frame was 0.38 percent, more than five times higher.

The Hong Kong Racing Lab does outside work, Wan said, and the rate of positives for overseas post-race samples tested is 2.6 percent – 37 times higher than the rate of post-race positives for Hong Kong's races. So it's safe to say that Hong Kong's low number of violations is not due to an inability to detect prohibited substances.

Wan, who studied in the United States – first at the Lowell Technological Institute, then the University of Wisconsin and finally at MIT, where he earned a PhD – worked as a forensic scientist in Hong Kong before focusing on drug testing in racing. In Hong Kong, even with all the security measures taken, he knows that some people will always try to get an edge.

“Any time there is a possibility of winning prize money and fame,” he said, “there is always this attraction to win at all costs.”

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Racing Lab has 55 employees

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Racing Lab has 55 employees

Wan cited a survey conducted by physician Robert Goldman over a period of years beginning in the early 1980s that demonstrated this “win at all costs” attitude. The Goldman Survey or Goldman's Dilemma, as it is known, asked elite human athletes if they would take a drug guaranteeing them victory in every competition, but with one caveat: the drug would kill them in five years. Stunningly, over several sample groups, more than half the athletes surveyed said “yes.”

The desire to cheat, however, is a minor concern to Wan compared to the explosive growth of human drugs that he believes may be finding their way into horse racing.

“The biggest challenges in Hong Kong as well as elsewhere is there are always new drugs coming on the market, new ways of doping,” he said. “We currently are testing thousands of targets, but it can easily increase to tens of thousands because of drug development companies coming up with new possibilities that are effective, that have biological effect. It's difficult to catch up.”

Wan refers to the capability gap – the difference between what testing labs can detect vs. the total number of drugs on the market. “Today the gap is only so big,” he said, holding up his forefinger and thumb. “Tomorrow the gap is bigger (holding his hands well apart from each other) because the growth of available drugs is much faster than the growth in capability of the individual labs. And so the capability gap is increasing, and there must be a better way of doing drug control than we do now, which I would call conventional drug testing.

“Testing for the drug or the metabolites – one drug at a time or one metabolite at a time from biological fluid, whether it's urine, blood or even hair – that's okay for now,” he said. “But more and more of the drugs are very polar, which means they are like the substance of the body so they don't have much differentiation.”

Wan said proteins and peptides present a specific challenge.

“The body has a lot of them, but the drugs themselves, what I would call the biologic drugs, like proteins and peptides, it's difficult to analyze these substances. The proteins are more expensive, there is a cost involved. But nowadays you don't have to use the proteins, you can use part of the proteins, what I would call peptides, that bind to the same receptor as the proteins. Maybe the effect is slightly less, but it is still effective. The proteins are expensive but the small peptides are cheap, a few American dollars per amino acid.

Making these peptides even more problematic is the fact they can be custom synthesized. “You can play with the makeup of the amino acids,” he said, “changing the peptides a little bit. It may still have the same effect but it would be extremely difficult for a doping control lab to find the modified peptides. And modification is easy. The knowledge is out there. You chop down the protein to the peptides and they are still effective, and you change one of the amino acids, they are still active, and then you patent part of a protein of 30 or 40 amino acids with a slight variance, but they still bind to the same receptor, producing the same effect. For example, dermorphin, I'm sure, would have 40 or 50 variants that have been patented and are effective, acting similarly to the same receptor, causing analgesia in that particular case.  So how can we catch up, without even knowing what amino acid they have switched?”

Wan said the answer may not lie in conventional drug testing.

“We must have some kind of game-changing way of doing testing,” he said. “What we want to control is the effect on the animal. We are doing indirect testing, chemical testing, trying to find banned substances or the metabolite in the sample. I'm thinking we should move on to biological testing, testing for the effect rather than for the presence of the banned substances. You may have heard of testing for bio-markers or biological passports in the human world. Basically these are longitudinal profiles of athletes. These tests do not target specific substances – steroids or growth hormones – but they are looking at the effect which is manifested because the drug has an effect on the body.”

Wan said getting to the next level in drug control will take collaboration, harmonization and a pooling of resources

Wan said getting to the next level in drug control will take collaboration, harmonization and a pooling of resources

The testing measures different metabolites and proteins in the body. When significant change occurs in that metabolome and proteome, the suspicions would be that certain banned substances may have caused those changes.

“Even though there's no way to tell based on these tests that the animal has been exposed to what kind of substance, the changes are out of the ordinary, they are abnormal,” Wan said. “I think we have to think about this game-changing way of doing doping control, and not just test for one drug at a time, one metabolite at a time. This is extremely difficult. Several labs right now are starting research into this direction. We have to change our way of thinking. I believe there is a future in biological markers or profiling.”

Wan said this new approach would not completely take the place of conventional drug testing and that rules need to be changed, as they have been in human sports, so that abnormal profiles can lead to sanctions, whether or not the source of the change is detected.

“More pragmatically,” he said, “because there is change in the profile, the athlete will be targeted for more testing, more frequency of testing. It's a complement to conventional drug testing. It's one way of solving a number of problems, including the undetectable substances.”

This won't come without a cost.

“The biological markers are hugely expensive,” he said. “The labs, the authorities, have to come together. I am all for collaboration and harmonization. This is a major problem that I see. It's not just the U.S. or China or elsewhere. We have to pool resources to work together and share the cost of this major development, what I see as a game changing development that will be hugely expensive.”

  • really?

    sounds like an impossible mission. good to know the cheaters will always win

  • Tinky

    This is really outstanding work, Ray, and Dr. Wan is spot-on.

    Well, spot-on as far as he goes. As I’ve mentioned many times previously, there is another solution, which is to freeze samples and hold trainers responsible for positives that are discerned long after races, when new compounds are identified and tests are developed for them.

    • Figless

      Completely agree, they need to know that just because they are ahead of the curve now it can and will catch up to them.

    • Alex

      There are NOT sufficient means to preform proper post race testing in most if not all states now. Where do the funds come from to bring post race testing up to an acceptable level?

      • Tinky

        It’s a matter of priorities, Alex. No one has suggested that there are excess funds lying around for any type of enhanced testing and/or enforcement protocols.

        The question is not whether there are funds available, but whether the industry will ever be motivated to develop such funding.

        • Al

          Do you know how they fund in Hong Kong? Is it all government or or public/ private partnership?

          • Tinky

            The Hong Kong Jockey Club has been in existence since the late 19th Century. It is a non-profit organization, but is extremely successful and wealthy. They fund the laboratory.

        • SteveG

          Tinky, one wonders if there’s a calculation to determine the cost of the seemingly permanent cloud of (valid) suspicion which has settled over the sport? My guess is if that math could be performed, developing funds to remove all or most of that cloud would be economical measured against the incalculable cost of allowing it to remain.

          • Tinky

            Sure, Steve, but compared with that task, it would be dead simple to calculate the opportunity cost of continuing to choose takeout rates that far exceed ideal levels.

            And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, look at the broader economy and what has transpired since the 2008 crisis. That a new and bigger crisis would unfold within a few short years was entirely predictable. In fact, given the lack of serious reform and moral hazard, it was a certainty.

            It isn’t difficult to understand why bankers and politicians would make decisions that benefit a tiny minority at the expense of the masses, but systemic corruption doesn’t explain why the American racing industry continues to protect an unsustainable status quo.

            In my view, a combination of ignorance, lack of true innovation, and fear of the unknown are the primary explanations.

    • Tink, I suggested many years ago that if we wanted to do something constructive we ought to store all Group race winners’ samples against future testing and that subsequent failure should lead to the horse being awarded *next to his name [as the imports once had]. The implications of a stallion’s [or valuable broodmare’s] bona-fides having to be legally guaranteed to anyone buying a share or nomination would have been a powerful disincentive to any temptation to dabble in “cutting-edge sports medicine”; particularly big firms that might be tempted to take a more cosmopolitan approach!

      • Tinky

        Excellent idea, Bill!

        Won’t happen, but I love it!

  • Horsesfirst

    Brilliant article Ray. It highlights the inadequate state of our labs who are hopelessly underfunded. It is so tempting for a trainer in the USA to cheat because there is so little chance of being caught and if he is a lawyer can get them off on a technicality as happened at Delaware with Pletcher.

    • togahombre

      the lack of supporting scientific material is a failure on the part of the regulators to responsibly perform the job their assigned, you can’t fix the problem without recognizing it

    • Alex

      The Tod Pletcher case in Delaware was no small technicality. In the Pletcher case at Delaware the RMTC thresholds couldn’t be supported. The RMTC refused to provide the scientific research on how they developed thresholds. Pletcher’s attorney Karen Murphy stated that the thresholds put forth by the RMTC and ARCI are built on a foundation of
      sand. This is a huge mess because many states have the RMTC and ARCI WRONG THRESHOLDS written into law.

      • ben

        No tresholds will be the best solution for the industry. Keeps all the cheaters out.

        Tresholds are only for the convenience of the vet. As more shots ( a greater choice) means more income.

        Look at the welfare from the horse, when the horse needs medications in order to compete in the races, than it should not race. Period.

        • Alex

          Basic science is difficult for you. If a foal of 3 months age is treated with Banamine for a fever, some molecules of Banamine will be in this horse for the rest of its life. You can only drop below the current detection level, but never get to zero.

          • ben

            Each and any horse should have a biological pasport to start with.
            Secondly each and any treatment should be listed, third that is depending on the accuracy from the test,

            Some treatments are allowed in life threatning conditions and should be written out in the medical pasport, for the rest my stance on the subject is known.

            In any of this cases the source is not about some special cases which will account for less than 1% from all horses, it is about the general custom racehorse.

            But from your background, you are defending: more medications are better

  • Memories of Puchi

    fascinating article. thank you Ray. it’s nice to know there is somewhere that is as close to ideal as possible for the testing process.
    one idea for funding: integrity benefits the horse owners/trainers/jockeys but it also benefits the players/bettors. what if $1 was taken out of every $100 of payouts over $101? (such as if I bet $50 on a superfecta box that paid 32.50 and ended up with $220 in winnings, $2 would go towards testing.) Sounds tiny in this example, but in aggregate accumulation there should be a considerable sum that goes directly towards ensuring fair results.

  • Pebbles

    I have said it before – I believe that you need two incremental changes to take place (since wholesale changes are likely impossible):

    Improved laboratory testing/credible laboratory policies
    Out of competition testing

    These two steps would do a lot to improve the integrity of the sport and would make the other two more expensive suggestions unnecessary (cameras in barns/enhanced backstretch security) since out of competition testing would put all connections on notice that at any time and better laboratory testing would make it much more difficult to get an inaccurate positive and appeal a positive successfully which will reduce appeal time and challenges once connections see that success on appeal is unlikely.

  • G. Rarick

    Again, proving Hong Kong is the best racing system in the world. Yes, impossible to replicate elsewhere, but there is so much that other jurisdictions could do to follow the example set here. Yes, testing for peptides is impossible and the use of them is surely rampant. But they’re trying to find solutions that could work in less well-controlled countries.

    • ben

      You can not define them and sort out ( but peptides are changing the natural fit, in the horse) so the statement has to be ban all the drugs and medications which change the natural fit.

      By using another set of words the effect from the lab testings will be much and much broader.

  • Jack Frazier

    Dr. Wan spoke volumes when he stated that human athletes, who have a choice of using drugs or not, would take them even if they would only live another five years before death. Equine athletes don’t have that luxury and those to whom the almighty dollar is more important than the horse, will never stop because the horse is the end to a means. A total ban of all drugs should be the norm not the exception. Once a horse is on therapeutic medication, they should not be able to race until such a time that all traces, not a threshold level, is not present.

    The politicization of those in power, who fear the big name trainers might be caught and it might further tarnish racing’s image, are dead wrong. The high profile cases only highlight the problem. A smaller name trainer trying to compete against the veterinary trainers is punished mightily while the big guys, even after they have killed horses in training or a race, get off with a slap on the wrist. You can read about what happened at Santa Anita in the past couple of years on this site.

    To bring people back into racing, it needs to be clean but many trainers are like the proverbial drunk: one beer is too many and twelve just ain’t enough, as the song goes. And with the five year hold on releasing new drugs by the FDA, that emulate the effects of known steroids, vassal dilators and central nervous stimulants, these wealthy owners and trainers know they can get away with cheating until a test is available for those drugs and then they will find another. They use them because they work and they know they have a five year window to operate in, so they just move on to the next one.
    Racing need to grow a pair of testicles and do the right thing but then when they are friends with the cheaters, what can you expect. Just one man’s opinion and i don’t give two hoots if you agree or not.

    • At the moment the whole perception of privilege – “friends with the cheaters” – stems from the fact that the biggest owners are drawn to trainers that take liberties; if anything does come up they feign amazement and walk away unscathed; if they shared the disgrace things would change markedly, certainly after the first big owner [and big horse] got drummed out of the Brownies. As with the banks, no-one should be “too big to fail”.

  • Susan K Vescovo

    Dr Wan’s thinking is so progressive. It would be wonderful if every horse had a “biological birth certificate” so to speak. Drug abuse is racing needs to be curtailed. Here in N.M. We do not even have an EMD, and probably have as many or more positives than anywhere…Go figure

  • Fallow1

    Massive sums are bet on Hong Kong races. Dwarfs US betting handle. The attraction to would be dopers is enormous, you could make a tidy sum and not even be noticed in those 20 million dollar pools.

    HK racing seems to be doing a good job of keeping things as honest as possible . They have to.

  • Ronald W

    I think the way things have been done in Honk Kong, for several years now, really illustrate what a poor job we do here in the states with drug testing and medication regulation. Racing commissions can make their rulings, but whenever these ruling end up in “real” courts they get thrown out… problems with chain of custody, etc. I love the surveillence cameras in the lab in Hong Kong…

  • Condor

    Do the labs ever check that positive tests are acted upon or reported by the authorities in the country from which they are sent? Pointless sending samples if your governing body is corrupt

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