Saga Of Suddenbreakingnews Raises Troubling Questions About Steroid Testing Uniformity

by | 06.07.2016 | 6:28pm
In the old days, determining a horse's status as a colt or gelding was less technical, as this George Stubbs portrait attests

The recent revelation that Belmont Stakes contender Suddenbreakingnews is not a gelding but a ridgling was a surprise to everyone, including his connections. Somewhere along his journey, the horse was recorded as having been castrated, when in fact neither of his testicles had descended into his scrotum. The mistake was discovered when Kentucky officials contacted trainer Donnie Von Hemel following unexpected results of anabolic steroid testing around the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, where Suddenbreakingnews finished fifth. The levels came back higher than expected for a castrated male — of course, Suddenbreakingnews hadn't been castrated.

Although the situation was unusual, Von Hemel said he had no reason to suspect from the horse's physical makeup that he was not a gelding.

“He's always been pretty mild-mannered,” said Von Hemel. “He's on the thinner side, doesn't have a big muscle mass or anything, so once I asked and they said, 'No, we gelded him,' it wasn't anything that brought any question into my mind at the time.”

Equine reproduction experts estimate that cryptorchidism occurs in somewhere between 5 and 8 percent of male foals at birth, and the majority of those cases (about 62 percent) are unilateral cryptorchidism, where one of the testicles has descended, making Suddenbreakingnews a statistical anomaly.

What makes his story a more puzzling one is that Suddenbreakingnews had success in two other racing jurisdictions before making his start in Kentucky; he finished second in the G1 Arkansas Derby and won the G3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park, and won the Clever Trevor, a listed stakes race at Remington Park during his 2-year-old season –- all situations where the horse would have been subjected to post-race drug testing. So why wasn't his true equipment status revealed until May of his 3-year-old year? Does the timeline of events say more about the equine reproductive system or the regulatory drug testing system?

Experts say it's possible the horse's hormone levels could have remained well within the expected range for a gelding until very recently. All three states in which Suddenbreakingnews has run – Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kentucky – have testing thresholds for testosterone, nandrolone, and boldenone, all of which are naturally present in some concentration in both male and female horses. The expectation is that castrated males and nonpregnant females should have small amounts of the hormones present, and uncastrated males should have significantly more.

Because both of Suddenbreakingnews's testicles were retained close to his body, however, researchers at the University of California-Davis say his hormone production may not have followed the typical pattern for an uncastrated male.

“You get circumstances like that where the retained testes may produce almost no testosterone at all, even potentially in an older horse,” said Dr. Scott Stanley, director at the UC-Davis Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory. “Oftentimes, they're smaller, they're less functional when they're retained within the body.”

Suddenbreakingnews works at Churchill

Suddenbreakingnews works at Churchill

The increased heat from the testes' proximity to the body may have delayed the start of hormone production in Suddenbreakingnews, and so might his age. Suddenbreakingnews is a May foal, and Stanley said in his experience it isn't unusual for intact colts in their 2-year-old season to test very low for testosterone because they may not be fully sexually mature at that point. Older colts, Stanley said, from the ages of three and four upward, are more likely to begin testing differently from their gelded stablemates.

“The other factor, that I think people forget, is that reproductive functioning in the male is seasonal,” said Dr. Alan Conley, director at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Clinical Endocrinology Laboratory. “If he comes into the breeding season, his hormone output is going to increase.”

One thing that did strike Conley as unusual was the timeframe for the hormone level increase. Suddenbreakingnews's second place finish in the G1 Arkansas Derby came on April 16, and the elevated hormone levels came back about three weeks later after the May 7 Kentucky Derby.

“That seems less likely, but it depends on the concentrations,” said Conley. “The change from gelding concentration to stallion is a 10-fold increase, 20-fold increase or more. We would expect that sort of increase to occur over several weeks and months. That would be very much more difficult to explain.”

So, Suddenbreakingnews may have been the vessel for a strangely-timed statistical oddity. But a closer look at threshold levels for steroids in the three jurisdictions reveals that the same post-race sample from a horse like Suddenbreakingnews would have been handled differently in each place, prompting questions about how far the industry has come in uniformity of steroid regulation. Arkansas and Kentucky's threshold for testosterone in horses starting as geldings is 20 nanograms/milliliter in urine or 25 picograms/ml in plasma. In Oklahoma, regulations put in place in 2009 state that all horses must test under 100 picograms/ml in plasma.

For nandrolone, geldings must test under 50 picograms/ml in plasma but may go up to 65 picograms/ml in Oklahoma.

Kelly Cathey, executive director for the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission, said his state's steroid regulations are under examination, along with the rest of its medication thresholds.

drug testing test tubes“We're going through the process with our ad hoc committee to look at adopting the RCI guidelines for therapeutic medication,” said Cathey. (Cathey confirmed that Suddenbreakingnews had no abnormal findings after his starts in Oklahoma last year.)

Arkansas adheres to the same standards as Kentucky for thresholds, except in the case of boldenone. In Kentucky, that steroid is only permissible in intact males, while in Arkansas, it may be permitted up to 25 picograms/ml in plasma regardless of a horse's gender.

It's also worth noting that the level of testing done in each of the three jurisdictions is considerably different. Oklahoma's longstanding arrangement with Industrial Laboratories subjects all samples to instrumentation testing per the heightened requirements laid out by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Pricing for that facility placed tests for paired blood and urine analysis at $96 each. Kentucky, similarly, subjects all its samples to screening for the HFL Sports Science Laboratory's complete catalogue of substances. Although a per-test cost was unavailable at the time of this writing, totals for testing expenses in 2015 would suggest the state spent a comparable amount on its testing per horse.

Beyond stakes races, which are subjected to $145 “Super Tests,” Arkansas' current contract with Truesdail Laboratories breaks out urine and blood tests separately at $27.50/test and $18.00/test; steroid tests are listed still separately. The current contract between Arkansas and Truesdail still permits the laboratory to split samples into three groups, one of which may be tested with the dated thin-layer chromatography method, presumably as a cost-saving measure.

Mark Lamberth, member of the Arkansas State Racing Commission, said he expects testing to increase across the board in the next year.

“We've been awarded more money by the state of Arkansas to do testing next year; our budget has been increased,” he said.

Listed stakes like the Clever Trevor and graded stakes like the Southwest do have post-race samples tested by the standards laid out by the American Graded Stakes Committee and based on the RCI model rules, but those tests take place at the chosen laboratory under the chosen contract for a given jurisdiction. They are also subject to the state's house rules on what constitutes an overage for a substance like a steroid and what does not.

“What's in the protocol are performance standards, what the lab should at least be testing to. Any decision on what constitutes a violation is up to the racing commission,” said Andy Schweigardt, secretary for the American Graded Stakes Committee.

The committee does not request a list of tests and results from a jurisdiction in order to verify that post-race samples from graded and listed stakes have been tested according to standards. Rather, each jurisdiction pens a letter to the committee at the end of the year attesting that they have done their duty. There are also no standards in place from the committee regarding the accreditation of the laboratory doing the testing.

“We're certainly not a scientific body to be out determining a laboratory accreditation, or have any type of knowledge to tell whether or not a laboratory is up to standards. That's way beyond the committee's scope,” said Schweigardt.

Schweigardt anticipated that the committee will ask some questions of veterinarians to determine what could have happened in the case of Suddenbreakingnews. We'll probably never know for sure what happened to prompt the change in the horse's status, whether his hormone levels were considered normal for a gelding earlier this year because of the laboratory doing the testing on him, whether they were considered normal because of the thresholds used at his geographic location, or whether they were normal because he hadn't finished developing. But the fact that we can't be sure suggests that true uniformity in the world of post-race testing for steroids is not as clear or as close as many in the industry might like to think.

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