Horse Racing Regulators’ Whack-A-Mole Challenge

by | 04.23.2015 | 6:07pm
A full house for the lab directors round table at the RCI convention

Spent a few days at the 81st annual convention of the Association of Racing Commissioners International at Tampa, Fla. You'd think after 80 years they'd have this “regulating the horse and dog racing industries” thing figured out.

Not necessarily so. But, as I learned in watching committee meetings and panel discussions of the RCI convention and the annual meeting of the Association of Official Racing Chemists, it's not an easy job.

Let's get the news out of the way first.

–The RCI's Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee moved to recommend regulations on cobalt that are similar to those approved by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium last month: levels of 25 to 50 parts per billion (ppb) will result in a warning letter to the trainer; levels higher than 50 will subject a trainer to Category B penalties, usually resulting in loss of purse, plus a fine and suspension. Where the RCI committee deviated from RMTC was approval of a 10-year suspension of a trainer whose horse tests higher than 300 ppb for cobalt.

Cobalt has been proven to be a blood-doping agent in humans, but there is no scientific studies confirming similar properties in horses. That's why several committee members voted against this recommendation.

The regulation now goes to the RCI's Model Rules Committee, which is expected to meet in July. After that it's up to individual states to adopt the rules. Currently, only Indiana has regulations in place for cobalt in Thoroughbreds.

–The same RCI committee deferred taking action on approving threshold levels for amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has a calming affect on horses and is found in a supplement called Carolina Gold that some horsemen give illegally on race day.

The RMTC approved a 110 ppb threshold for GABA. The RCI's newly created Scientific Advisory Committee – seen by some as an effort to undermine RMTC – was divided on the threshold level and did not make a recommendation. Some on the Scientific Advisory Committee wanted a threshold of 190.

–Mark H. Lamberth, a member of the Arkansas Racing Commission, has been elected the new chairman of RCI, taking over from John Ward, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Panel discussions were illuminating. An Equine Welfare Roundtable, “View From the Trenches: What We're Seeing on the Backstretch,” showcased some of the unlabeled junk being peddled by compounding pharmacies and used by trainers and/or veterinarians. RMTC executive director Dr. Dionne Benson showed commissioners a number of unlabeled products, including one unmarked vial that was tested and confirmed positive for a liquid synthetic marijuana.

Another presentation, by Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay (who did not attend but appeared by video), said that she learned in looking at “unfiltered” testing results that at a track with low purses and less use of therapeutic medications there were fewer breakdowns than at a track with higher purses and more widespread use of therapeutic medications. Some trainers at these higher-class tracks, Scollay said, are using a broad array of legal drugs and may be unable to tell when their horses are unsound.

Dr. Kathleen Anderson, who practices at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland and is president-elect of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, talked about the role of veterinarians and mentioned specifically that 10-15 percent of the many horses she scopes every year suffer some form of Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage. Anderson said the AAEP will continue to support the use of the race-day medication furosemide, or Lasix, to treat EIPH, until there is another alternative.

However, when asked after her presentation why nearly 100 percent of horses are prescribed Lasix if only 15-20 percent are bleeders, Anderson could only say trainers want a “level playing field.” Anderson also acknowledged that the AAEP, which has members from every racing country, was at odds with other similar organizations such as the British Equine Veterinary Association, which does not support the use of race-day Lasix.

Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of California-Davis laboratory provided information on hair sample drug testing. Currently, Stanley said, Davis tests hair for Kentucky auction companies and Los Alamitos. He estimated costs at $300-$400 per sample but said it will get “cheaper, faster, better.” Stanley does not envision hair testing replacing blood and urine testing but acting as complementary testing and will be especially useful in screening out-of-competition samples. The timeline for detection of illegal drugs, he said, is “months, not days.” Hair testing can be used to detect anabolic and corticosteroids, B2 agonist derugs like clenbuterol, selective SARMS, proteins and peptides.

The most sobering panel was a Lab Directors Roundtable in which Stanley, Terrance Wan of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Mary Robinson of the University of Pennsylvania, and Clive Pearce of LGC Group spoke.

Terrance Wan

Terrance Wan of Hong Kong Jockey Club

Stanley and Robinson said funding and resources are the biggest problem they face in trying to keep up with the cheaters, Pearce said the new protein and peptide drugs are a major challenge because of the difficulty of developing target analysis for the molecules they contain.

“Peptides are easily synthesized and very potent,” said Stanley, who said one of the big challenges is getting samples of the latest drugs so tests can be developed.

Wan wondered if racing has come to the point where it should stop using so many of its resources testing for levels of therapeutic drugs and focus more on the illegal performance-enhancers.

“Our job is getting more difficult every day,” said Wan. “There is a gap between what we can detect and what is available out there, and it is widening.”

Drug detection is a bit like a game of Whack-a-Mole. By the time, the RCI or regulators act on a substance like cobalt, for example, unethical vets and horsemen will have moved on to the next new thing. Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, said during the discussion on cobalt that unannounced testing found average levels of cobalt of 18.8 ppb. Once horsemen knew about cobalt testing, Palmer said, average levels fell to 0.5 ppb.

Being a racing regulator is a difficult and often thankless job.

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