New York’s Drug Testing Program Has Its Own ‘Style’

by | 03.12.2015 | 11:03am

“It just doesn't pass the smell test.”

Attorney Drew Mollica repeated the phrase, utterly mystified a few days after his client, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, was handed a fine and suspension for overages of both flunixin and furosemide in Saratoga Snacks from a Sept. 20 race at Belmont Park.

Mott was told the horse's furosemide levels were ten times the legal limit, despite the bleeder medication having been administered by a third party veterinarian at a third the usual dose, per Mott's request. Given his client's pristine reputation and clear medical records backing up Mott's account of the furosemide administration, Mollica already thought the situation smelled a little fishy.

By now, he thought it stunk.

Mott had requested a split blood sample be sent to a different lab for confirmatory testing and was informed there was an insufficient amount of plasma to do a split test. He's not the first trainer to encounter this problem.

Defense attorney Karen Murphy recalled four out of five occasions in the past two years in which a client had requested a split sample from the New York lab, only to be told there was either an insufficient quantity of blood for testing or the remainder of the sample had not been stored properly.

“Years ago I asked for a split, and I was told [the lab] threw it in the garbage can,” she said. “That's the kind of thing that makes your head burst because there are standard procedures and protocols.”

Once, the blood involved was frozen without being properly processed first, rendering the thawed product useless. More recently, the blood left over from a sample from the horse Wind of Bosphorus was too little for Louisiana State University's Dr. Steven Barker to perform a split sample test at the request of trainer Doug O'Neill in fall 2014.

“We have done thousands of splits over the years and New York has been almost exclusively the one to not provide sufficient sample for blood confirmations,” said Barker, an expert witness in the O'Neill case who was also suspicious of the quality of the New York lab's report .  “This is not so much lab error as a failure on the part of the entire operation to acknowledge and address this shortcoming.

“Yes, New York has its own ‘style,'” Barker concluded.

With no possibility of a test to help his case, O'Neill famously took the penalty in New York for a positive test for the anti-anxiety drug Oxazepam. Bill Mott now finds himself in a similar position.


New York, by the numbers
One element of New York's unique “style” of doing things has been its relatively atypical drug testing results. According to the New York State Gaming Commission's most recent annual report, the testing lab uncovered 27 positives at its Thoroughbred tracks in 2012 and 55 in 2013. In 2013, New York ran 3,752 races (which means the lab detected one positive in every 68 races), according to statistics from The Jockey Club. In the same period, Kentucky ran 1,867 races and reported 86 positives in Thoroughbred samples (one positive in every 22 races).

The content of those positives was also a little unusual; in 2013, the New York lab discovered 24 flunixin (Banamine) overages and just six phenylbutazone overages. In its fiscal year running 2012-13, Florida's testing laboratory detected 17 flunixin overages and 65 phenylbutazone overages (plus two cases where the drugs were used together in excess of legal limits).  In fiscal year 2012-13, California detected 89 positives, including 47 bute and eight flunixin.

Cash is king
Another element of New York's style has been, like many jurisdictions these days, to save money wherever possible. That was the motivation behind legislative action in 2010 that altered the language regulating equine post-race drug testing in the state. For some four decades, Cornell University had exclusively conducted the testing in its veterinary lab, but Michael Kotlikoff, dean of the university's veterinary medicine program  had been complaining to the state that it needed extensive updates ($9 million worth) to continue with the program. Dr. George Maylin, head of the testing program at Cornell, had other ideas.

At that time, the law mandated that testing occur at a New York university with a veterinary program, and Cornell was the only facility that fit the bill. Maylin made arrangements with officials at Morrisville State College to transfer the program there. Subsequently, legislators revised the law's wording to restrict post-race testing contracts to “a state college within this state with an approved equine science program.”

New York isn't the only state with a law on the books requiring its commission to use an in-state university lab: Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, and California have similar mandates. Most jurisdictions, however, open the job to bids from commercial facilities every few years.

Why doesn't New York open things up for competitive bids?

“New York, through law, made a determination that privatization is not appropriate for this testing,” the New York State Gaming Commission told the Paulick Report in a statement. “The Commission abides by the statutory requirements relative to equine drug testing.”

Commission officials pointed out that any college in New York fitting those guidelines could submit a bid for the project. It's unclear which, if any, of the state universities in New York are in a position to submit such a proposal. Bids will be accepted for the next contract period in July of this year.

At the time Maylin suggested the move from Cornell to Morrisville, he estimated the state could save $500,000 annually. Although he did not elaborate publicly on how he planned to trim six figures from the state testing budget, he and Morrisville officials projected the move would free up money for extra research and could create a testing program so advanced and cost-effective that other states might begin contracting there.

New York currently conducts its testing at Morrisville State College

New York currently conducts its testing at Morrisville State College

Five years later, no other racing jurisdictions contract with Morrisville for post-race testing of Thoroughbreds; instead, many of them have opted for Racing Medication and Testing Consortium-accredited labs.

The Morrisville laboratory applied for accreditation in 2013; while it is accredited by the International Organization for Standardization, its RMTC status remains pending. The supplemental operating budget for Morrisville running from April 2013-March 2014 included an additional $719,956 allocated for improvements relating to RMTC/Racing Commissioners International accreditation.

What's going on here?
With cost savings so enormous in the switch from Cornell to Morrisville, this reporter became curious as to what types of testing methods New York's program was utilizing. Without a public contract, there is no Request for Proposals outlining the Gaming Commission's desires regarding testing, no subsequent public Question and Answer document giving suggestions as to what methods are and are not permissible. The state's law on equine drug testing (Section 902 of Article 9 in the Racing, Pari-Mutuel Wagering, and Breeding Law) does not specify the methods to be used to search for illicit drugs in post-race samples.

Morrisville's own memorandum of understanding with the state, written in 2010, is astoundingly mute on the subject. Much of the nine-page document is concerned with finances and intellectual property, and while it specifies that testing should be done blindly and results should be reported, there is no stipulation for the type of testing the lab must use. Even one New York racing official interviewed by the Paulick Report was unable to find out how the lab analyzed its samples after inquiries to fellow officials and management.

The lab's International Standards of Operations documentation certifies its utilization of all three major testing methods for drugs in urine and blood: a cousin of the dated thin-layer chromatography, ELISA (enzyme-linked immunoassay) kit testing, which rose to prominence in the 1990s, and the newer, more sensitive and broader instrumentation methods, which include mass spectronomy.

Maylin told the Paulick Report the primary method of analysis used in the lab is instrumentation testing, with supplementation of ELISA kits. He spoke confidently about the lab's capabilities.

“The analytical methods have been validated by means of over 5,000 experimental drug administrations to research horses,” he said. “This has been an ongoing process for the past 40 years.”

A history lesson
That process wasn't enough to generate a positive test in a high-profile case back in 2012, however. New Jersey-based Standardbred trainer Lou Pena was charged by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (the predecessor to the New York State Gaming Commission) with over 1,700 medication violations discovered in the trainer's veterinary records. Strangely, there were no positive tests in any of those hundreds of incidences of medications given outside the bounds of the states' rules.

Even an intensive month-long investigation by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority of Pena's barn could kick up just two minor discrepancies in blood tests. One thing the two jurisdictions had in common at that time was a privately owned company named Testing Components Corporation. Testing Components Corporation, housed in an office a few minutes' walk from Maylin's old office at Cornell, was one of the suppliers of ELISA kits to both New York and New Jersey for post-race testing. The company continues to supply New York's testing program with ELISA kits.

TCC is steered by CEO Charles Prange, formerly co-founder of International Diagnostics Systems of Saint Joseph, Mich., which used to conduct testing and engineer ELISA kit technology. Prange found himself ensnared in legal battles several times in his tenure at IDS. In one instance, the New Mexico Racing Commission demanded Prange be sued by the state attorney general when, a few months into IDS's contract to test post-race samples, the commission accused the company of spending funds without the state's permission and releasing confidential information.

There was also a case in California in the late 1980s when Prange, in the midst of trying to land the state's contract for post-race testing, told officials he had detected “suspicious” results in 12 percent of horses at an Oak Tree Racing Association meet at Santa Anita Park, including cocaine positives in horses trained by Roger Stein, Laz Barrera, D. Wayne Lukas, Anthony Hemmerick, and Bryan Webb. Barrera, Stein, and Lukas sued over the accusations, claiming foul, and ultimately none of the positives were upheld due to insufficient scientific evidence when another lab was unable to detect the drug.

And finally, just ahead of the close of bids for the California contract, Prange was fired from the company he helped found and investigated for “misappropriation of corporate assets.” No charges were filed, and that same year, in 1989, he registered TCC with the state of New York.

Maylin's detractors and supporters alike are quick to point to his decades of experience in equine pharmacology—he literally wrote the book on the subject—and can attest to his scientific brilliance. When taking the stand in the 2012 Pena case though, even he was out of compelling revelations. Under questioning by the state, he suggested that some of the testing methods used in his lab were known to produce false negatives for some of the 14 substances Pena allegedly used (which included two steroids and three hormones), and that tests did not exist for some of the other substances.

When pressured further by Pena's defense attorney, Maylin ultimately testified, “We didn't find it and I don't know why.”

Questions of anonymity
One of the few things the memorandum of understanding holds the Morrisville laboratory to is anonymity of samples, both post-race and out-of-competition, and that's a standard Maylin said is a basic part of the lab's function. One former New York state employee remembers the process differently, however.

Part of the day-to-day responsibilities for Dr. Dianna Meyer, formerly an examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association, was pulling blood for out-of-competition tests. Although it was typical for NYRA stewards to give veterinarians a barn and stall number, that wasn't always the way things happened.

“On occasion, I was given the horse's name and the trainer's name of the race horse in question, until I took it to the State,” said Meyer, who eventually complained about the practice.

During this time, Meyer said veterinarians were sometimes instructed to label blood samples with this identifying information before they were sent to the laboratory.

Maylin said that this information has never reached the laboratory.

“The Lab receives a sample identification tag attached to each sample,” he said in an email. “There is no identification relating to trainer, horse's name on what we receive.  It is possible that the bottom part of the tag that is retained by the Commission has identification that you refer to.  We never see that.”

A multi-faceted problem

The 2011-12 winter meet at Aqueduct sparked outrage and scrutiny when 21 horses died from racing-related injuries. Despite an extensive investigation by a state task force and declarations by an alphabet soup of state and horsemen's groups encouraging examination and reform, 12 horses have died during the current meeting. The problem is almost certainly complex and could be due to several factors, as the state's task force outlined after the 2011-12 winter season, but it bears consideration that any state's regulations are only as good as the testing program enforcing them.

Alone, any of the unique elements of New York's drug testing ‘style' might be taken as oddities or errors. Taken together, they're starting to smell.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the veterinarian who administered furosemide to Saratoga Snacks was employed by the state. In New York, furosemide is administered by third party veterinarians hired by NYRA. In a related error, Dr. Meyer in fact worked for NYRA, not the state.

  • Natalie,
    Outstanding investigative work.

    • Gaye Goodwin

      Agreed. Thank you, again, Paulick Report. Does one get the notion that perhaps the mistaken positives are not really mistakes? That “protection” money is involved?

  • AngelaInAbilene

    Excellent investigative journalism Ms. Voss! It definitely puts a NY hot in a different light. We all want cheaters routed out but this is peoples livelihood they are messing with. Please keep digging, New York needs to answer the questions. And they need to answer sooner rather than later.

    • Ben van den Brink

      They like to save on tests or no tests at all, and fuelling the prizemoney with the savings.

  • Ben van den Brink

    Perfect description about the mess created.

  • KARL Bittner

    NY state at it’s finest. Nothing like integrity and transparency.

  • togahombre

    the folks that are responsible for allowing this to go on are the same ones that determined rick dutrow was bad for racing

    • Tinky

      And they were correct in that determination.

      • Jay Stone

        Tinky, have to disagree with you. Mr. Dutrow was used as an example to the industry rather than given a fair adjudication. What he did, and I’ve seen every charge, didn’t warrant basically a lifetime ban. If his sentence was a fair interpretation then there would be many trainers looking to find work elsewhere.

        • Tinky

          I’m also taking into account what he wasn’t charged with. But to your point, while it is true that from a dry, technical standpoint, the punishment was quite harsh given the infractions, RD asked – begged, in fact – to be used as an example. In other words, his consistently boorish behavior was certain to land him in hot water, yet rather than modify it when that became clear, he continued to behave as if he were somehow immune to the consequences.

          He wasn’t, and from my perspective, the industry is better without him.

          • McGov

            EXACTLY.

          • Alex

            “taking into account what he wasn’t charged with”

            Please list what Rick Dutrow was not charged with.

          • Jay Stone

            He did almost beg for what happened with his lax attitude but if everybody in this industry was given a lifetime ban for their immature attitudes there would probably be 20 percent less trainers. A man’s livelihood shouldn’t be totally taken away for having no communications skills and bad judgement. Two years is way too much for his transgressions from what we are witnessing now.

          • Then we need 20% fewer trainers. Since when is a finite number of people doing something (anything) a greater priority than ejecting people like Dutrow, who single-handedly did a great deal to ruin the sport (or any other business)?

      • togahombre

        my point is ny’s racing regulators may not be up to the task of running a lemonade stand much less doing the job their signed on for

        • Tinky

          I’m not arguing anything other than the point that they made the right call with Dutrow.

          • togahombre

            if they made the right call with dutrow, ny and other commissions made the wrong call on alot of others

          • DJ Bryant

            I’m not going to wade into the Dutrow debate because of conflict of interest, but I will throw this observation out there:
            I think on the subject of about almost any medication and testing issue in NY, including the building of Dutrow’s therapeutic meds rap sheet, one can draw a line back in time that mostly begins with what happened in the Pat Byrne stable in 1997.

          • Tinky

            Pat Byrne? You mean the trainer who languished in the low teens (W%) for years, hooked up Steve Allday, and won 36% or his races in ’97, and 38% in ’98? Then after his split with Stronach and, more importantly, Allday, he won 21% in ’99, and quickly back to earth (since 2006 he’s at 13%).

            I’m not defending NY in any way, but in the late ’90s there was no American laboratory capable of slowing down, let alone stopping the cutting-edge chemists.

          • DJ Bryant

            The KHRC held a meeting at CD in April 2000 (in the Derby Museum of all places!) with practicing vets saying they had developed a test for it. Later that spring, the first positive that I’m aware of, arose at Calder.

          • togahombre

            appreciate your input, thanks

          • DJ Bryant

            That just seems to me to be the point at which modern American racing began to blow up. Where horsemen quit trusting each other to play on the half-level, people started believing any rumor, states were under pressure to solve it, etc.

          • turffan

            So what you are saying is Allday needs to go. Funny( or not so funny) how often his name comes up. Who does he work for???

          • Tinky

            Among others, he has (most notably) done work for Pletcher for many years.

          • Susan Crane-Sundell

            The Lubrisyn guy—ah Tinky you’re inspiring me to do some research!

          • Jay Stone

            That’s another way to put it.

          • Ben van den Brink

            I tend to think that NY gaming, by acting this way,allowed possible cheating in quite a lot of cases.

            The testing is just not at the point and quality that is needed to control this buisiness

          • KY RACE FAN

            TOTALLY AGREE!!!!

        • Lynn

          It is interesting that, despite the same problem occurring repeatedly in this jurisdiction, that NY state regulations has no provision for actually collecting a split sample. According to the regulation on the NY gaming commission website, Article 1, part 4012 Possession of Drugs and Drug Testing, there is no statutory requirement for collection of a split. In fact, it appears that sufficient sample is collected for the primary testing, and it is not a split sample which is separately bagged and tagged as evidence, but technically the remainder of the primary sample which is requested and sent. I don’t think this is a testing lab issue, but rather the state of New York which needs to get their regulations in order with the rest of the country. New Mexico only this year passed a bill requiring split samples be collected and saved. Time for NY to get in line.

  • David

    Natalie, this is an excellent article that seems carefully researched and written; great work! I’m in awe of how many original investigative articles the PR puts out every year; you all are sort of a throwback to an earlier period in journalism where small shops consistently broke original investigative stories. We now live in the age of aggregation and restating what has already been said elsewhere; Ray, Scott, and team should be quite proud of this article!

  • c. biscuit

    Again, from the “just wondering” universe …
    Did the NY Gaming Commission select the “cheapest” security system for their casino operation? Why is racing handled so differently?

  • Peyton

    Great reporting Ms. Voss

  • Jay Stone

    Great piece backed up by pertinent facts and research. Points out how convoluted the system has become and the need for one set of rules and lab protocols.

  • McGov

    My first question is, how does a sample analysis stand up if not supported by a split sample? Is the split sample not part of the quality assurance?

  • Hamish

    Yikes, horse connections names on the sample vials, scary potential there. Guess it is a real good thing that practice has stopped. Does Mr. Prange both own and operate TCC, or who is behind that company?

  • Flyonthewall

    The contents of the article should also raise questions about the RCI after the recent formation of their own Scientific Advisory Committee–specifically designed to give Maylin ultimate authority over drug testing and medication policy. Wonder if they still think he should be their guy. Yeah, they probably do.

    • togahombre

      rci president ed martin came from ny racing and wagering board

  • Figless

    Albany is corrupt, shocking. Great job by the reporter exposing this, hopefully it accomplishes something. This should obviously be competitively bid using the most accurate method possible, peoples careers are on the line.

  • guest

    7 rulings on file against Mott – 2014 bute, 2013 no papers, 2013 ranitidine, 2009″Horse: PHANTOM RISING Drug: Furosemide Sample # 413017 Lab # A277762-HU. Horse was a first time starter who was on the bleeders list in NY.” 2008 bute, 2007 ranitidine, 2006 ranitidine.

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      Bute and ulcer medication OVERAGES. For gawds sake, it wasn’t dermorphin!

    • jorge

      Not counting 2 2014 rulings in Ky. Bute overage. Banamine overage. Not ulcer medicine!!

  • RKM

    Excellent and informative. Thanks.

  • Sue M. Chapman

    Here’s some truth I hope Natalie will pursue. Dr. Meyer was the victim of endless work related harassment by Dr. Vederosa, then and now, NYRA’s chief examining vet. From what I was told by an unimpeachable source, Dr. Meyer was made to look an incompetent fool according to Dr. Maylin’s explanation of the blood drawn by Dr. Meyer who was deliberately given false information to identify any horse who’s blood she was directed to collect and further stating the samples never reached his lab. Please contact her attorney.

    • Susan Crane-Sundell

      Ouch! Does this smack of retribution or sexism? Would very much like to hear about the experiences of Dr. Meyer. Just another layer to a very rotten onion. I’m so terribly sick of people having their integrity compromised, being besmirched or having their careers ruined by the corrupt or stubbornly ignorantly misguided people in high places.

    • tim blake

      Do you get paid by the word for these esoteric comments, Sue/Susan? And are you required to wreak havoc on English grammar or is that just a style choice? I find the whole process interesting so I am curious.

      • Sue M. Chapman

        Your comment is unrelated to the subject matter.

      • Susan Crane-Sundell

        Your grammar leaves much to be desired as well Mr. Blake. You are no William Blake, nor are you E.B. White.

  • Sue M. Chapman

    Dr. Maylin’s lab also has found post race blood from a horse trained by Bill Mott to be 10 times above the “acceptable limit” in a post race blood test.

  • Eyeswidehandstied

    As a horseman that has donated many pre and post race samples, this information is very alarming. I would hope that every member of the NYTHA and the other equine representatives will join forces to challenge the state of New York and immediately rectify this unacceptable practice. I would agree that accredited labs should bid for this contract , not just appoint a third rate state college to train students who may not appreciate the gravity of these blood tests. I’d have to think that without a split sample available there shouldn’t be a positive charge against an trainer. Thank you Ms. Voss for the new nightmares:)

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      Exactly.

    • Ben van den Brink

      Perfectly written, but only RMTC accredited labs, should make a bid. And testing for all (about 1600) medications should be done. And not just a part.

      • Eyeswidehandstied

        Agreed. New York wastes so much money on window dressing instead of eliminating the problem, cheating and the appearance of cheating. As a state owned facility, which it now is, wouldn’t mounted cameras around the entire barn area help negate nefarious happenings? Then send in security to check. Instead we have minimum wage untrained ” security” walking the barn area to make sure trainers put up the ” Horse In Today” sign by 6am and that “a” horse is in that particular stall the previous night and until it ships. Seems excessive but it’s still better than the retention barn plan that held us all 5-6 hours pre race. Morrisville also competes at FLRA do they check their own samples too?

    • Concerned Observer

      I am waiting for the comments from the folks that always support the position that “everything governmental” is accomplished better and cheaper at the local level?

      They are strangely silent on this one.

  • Susan Crane-Sundell

    Great article Ms. Voss! Your findings are enlightening and damningly perplexing.

    I am absolutely flabbergasted that NY does not require split samples. That is a basic in any lab protocol that examines tissue, blood etc. for any study. I have been living in ignorance assuming that basic lab protocols that anyone who has ever picked up a pipette learns on their first day as a junior lab tech would apply to the great state of NY’s lab testing for horse racing. The NYGA has access to some of the best equine veterinary practitioners in the country never mind the best pathologists and microbiologists. If they can’t put together a panel that can examine these practices and establish a better SOP than this I suggest they send a fact-finding committee to Hong Kong immediately. I’m sure that Morrisville or Cornell or any lab that would want this lucrative business would accommodate responsible protocols that produce valid results. As a thought for discussion, perhaps no state should have their testing done within the confines of their own state,it only exacerbates the possibility of unfair play. As an example, if NY sent their samples to a California lab and vice versa, it would be harder to establish any collusion

    As for the dubious practice of putting the names of competitor’s on the samples, that is just plain irresponsible. All samples should be assigned a unique registered number at time of collection, being duly logged and kept under the highest security by the Veterinary Director’s office. I’m glad Dr, Meyer complained. Why encourage any extra suspicion or question for prejudicial examination or potential sabotage? Keeping up with cheaters and doping technology is as challenging a race as the Classic Marathon.

    Mass spectrometry has surpassed ELISA and chromatography in its precision for most detection but all three have validity. None have validity if the samples are disabused, mishandled or not even available.

    The trainers deserve the transparency and protection of fair and consistent methods of testing.
    New York racing has a panoply of dilemmas as it is, let’s not let one that is fairly easy to standardize be another area for criticism.

    • tim blake

      You certainly are getting your money’s worth out of your thesaurus. However, if a farcical tone is not what you intended, I recommend an editor.

      • G. Rarick

        Do you have anything worthwhile to contribute, Tim Blake, or do you just revel in whatever personal vendetta you seem to have going here?

      • smchapman2

        Another personal attack having nothing to do with the subject matter, Tim Blake, is childish.

  • Ray, are you or Natalie planning on correcting the more-than-two-dozen mistakes/issues we pointed out in this “story?” Thanks

    • Natalie Voss

      I appreciated the feedback, Lee. As you’ll notice, we did add a correction regarding the employer of Dr. Meyer (NYRA, rather than the commission) and the vets who administer Lasix in New York (third party veterinarians contracted by NYRA). Beyond these two items, the notes you forwarded consisted of opinions, speculation, and conjecture, which of course you/Dr. Maylin are entitled to, but which don’t require a reply. Thanks.

  • Natalie Voss

    Hello Happy Horse, Maryland announced a five-year contract with Truesdail in early 2014.

    • Lynn

      Is Truesdail one of the labs that provides testing at a lower cost via pooling samples?

  • biggar

    I’m a hobby handicapper with interest in most racing related articles. I originally glossed over this article as I determined that it was too complicated for me to comprehend the charges being leveled here, but after reading the glowing comments on the research and investigation involved I made a real effort to understand them.
    After careful reading the article doesn’t appear to say much of anything, and the facts presented don’t prove anything.
    It seems to me that this is bolster distrust of New York’s Drug Testing Program without actually making any real accusations or presenting facts that support the innuendo.
    I’m guessing that this lab has recently made a decision that the author and associates don’t like.
    I don’t have a established opinion on anyone involved in this article.

    • jim

      One trainer had 1700 drug violations was caught by using vet records and not one positive from NY lab.

  • Terri Z

    It’s very sad when an ethical trainer is charged with a lasix overdose given by a third party vet. And when NY mishandles the split test to confirm the results. Bill Mott was there to witness the administration of lasix and he always requests a lower level of lasix than is allowed.

    • Ran

      NYRA does not do the drug testing. The New York Gaming Commission is in charge of that. NYRA has nothing to do with split samples, once again Gaming Commission.

    • jorge

      Did NYRA cause the 2 overages he had in ky in 2014

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