Testing, Testing: How Strong Are Racing’s Drug Testing Programs?

by | 04.16.2014 | 8:47am

When the state of Maryland released a call for proposals from laboratories interested in taking on the state's post-race testing, Dr. Rick Sams, director of the HFL Sport Science Lab in central Kentucky, read over the rules carefully. The request had a number of requirements regarding the ideal candidate's certifications but left the actual description of the testing to be done fairly open.

Sams put together the same proposal he usually does in such cases: an outline of the state-of-the-art procedures his lab technicians use to screen all samples for 1,500 substances. The procedures would have caught all testable illegal, performance-enhancing drugs and pinpointed thresholds of legal medications to detect overages. The total cost came to $4,871,880 for five years of testing.

Although his proposal was ranked first for its technical merit, the contract was awarded to Truesdail Laboratories in California, which offered to do five years of testing for $2,797,922.

Truesdail's proposal called for a combination of state-of-the-art testing and an older methodology, which limits the number of drugs for which a sample may be tested.

Officials explained the decision in a meeting of the Board of Public Works last month.

“It was determined that the difference in the strength of the technical proposals did not justify a 43 percent price difference and award is recommended to Truesdail Laboratories, Inc. as having the more advantageous offer to the State,” read the minutes from that meeting on Feb. 5.

State governments often make decisions like this based on cost, but those decisions can have consequences at the finish line. What complicates matters for the racing industry is that every state operates independently, making for a varied landscape of testing standards and methods.

The alphabet soup of testing
One of the most important differences in testing between states is the methodology used to analyze post-race samples. There are three primary types of testing mentioned in most contracts: thin-layer chromatography (TLC), enzyme-linked immunoassays (ELISA kits), and liquid or gas chromatography/mass spectronomy (LCMS/GCMS).

TLC was the testing method of choice in the 1970s and 1980s because of its speed and cost efficiency. It remains a quick means of testing a sample, but is relatively insensitive, and may only detect substances given to a horse within a few days.

ELISA test kits came to prominence in the 1990s as a more expensive but more sensitive option. One test kit, which costs between $50 and $100, can test between 80 and 86 samples at once. Each kit can test for only one, or perhaps two or three closely-related drugs, making it expensive to test for a range of possible drugs using ELISA kits alone. An even larger downside is the limitations of ELISA tests—there aren't kits available for all known substances that could be found in racehorses.

LCMS/GCMS is a more recent development in drug testing and has the advantage of being both highly sensitive and efficient, analyzing a sample against a library of known drugs in a single test. It also happens to be the most expensive option for laboratories to develop and for customers to use. LCMS/GCMS (also called instrumentation testing) is best at keeping up with an evolving carousel of performance-enhancing drugs, many of which are easily mutated to evade regulators.

Mass spectronomy is one of the most advanced testing methods but also comes with higher costs

Mass spectronomy is one of the most advanced testing methods but also comes with higher costs

Since there is no law obligating states to pony up for the most advanced post-race testing methods available, they often make decisions based on costs, which means that commissions and labs often find their hands tied by budget constraints. Some states raise the extra cash from commissions, horsemen, or racetracks to use the best testing they can. Those that can't may give preference (or in some cases, even require) laboratories to use older methods or reduce the scope of their testing to comply with cost restrictions.

“It's unfortunate that most of the labs we have begun accrediting have that high level of technology, it's just that they're not always permitted to use it based on the contract that they have with the commission,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director for the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.

Benson said low standards could result from a combination of poor funding or shaky education on the part of racing commissions to understand what different testing methods entail and why they are priced the way they are.

Different standards in practice
The most recent request for proposals (RFP) for post-race testing in Indiana requires samples to be subjected to both “instrumentation methods of analysis” (which includes GCMS and LCMS) and “a complementary panel of [ELISA] tests.” It also requires the lab to meet a basic international standard for testing laboratories. Further, it states that the Indiana Horse Racing Commission must hold $10,000 in reserve to help develop tests for new drugs in the future. The contract was ultimately awarded to HFL, where Sams said the lab's instrumentation testing screens all samples for around 1,500 substances.

Other states are not so specific, or so thorough.

Florida conducts its post-race testing via the Florida Racing Laboratory at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The state's 11-page contract with the lab has just one paragraph outlining the technical specifications of the testing itself, and nowhere does it specifically outline what type of test must be used. Instead, it reads: “Testing shall be sufficient to cover acidic, basic, and neutral drugs both conjugated and non-conjugated.”

All three of the common available testing methods, including the older TLC testing, will identify acidic, basic, and neutral drugs—because all drugs are either acidic, basic, or neutral.

Arkansas' request for contract proposals divides its samples randomly into thirds. One third may have TLC, ELISA, or the most advanced method, instrumentation testing, used on them; one third are tested with 15 or more ELISA kits, and the final third are screened with instrumentation testing. For those falling into the middle third, samples could legally be tested for as few as 15 substances. Total price for post-race testing (both equine and canine) annually in Arkansas: $166,560.

When New Jersey asked for proposals from labs to conduct its post-race testing, instrumentation testing was not recognized as a legal form of testing per the racing commission's rules. As a result, labs contracted to New Jersey can't implement the most advanced form of testing.

Louisiana's contract with the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College leaves the door open as to the types of testing that can be used. The contract states that either TLC or instrumentation testing may be used for blood samples, and either ELISA or instrumentation for urine samples.

Not all states require the labs they use to be accredited by international or RMTC standards. Some don't address accreditation at all, and others only suggest that the lab do internal quality checks. Many states also don't outline which drugs must stay in the testing rotation.

Filling up the pool
To save money, some laboratories will mix two or three, even five or ten urine samples and run one test on the pooled result rather than paying for ten separate tests. As more samples are added together, the concentration of whatever substances they contain is reduced.

Dr. Rick Sams, director of HFL Sports Science

Dr. Rick Sams, director of HFL Sports Science

Some states (like Indiana, for example) specifically forbid sample pooling, while others allow an express number of samples to be pooled. Still others, like Florida, are silent on the matter—meaning a lab could pool to its budgetary content without violating contract.

Could sample pooling reduce the concentration of a substance to the point that it's undetectable?

“It really depends on each individual drug. With some drugs, the limit of detection is such that you could pool and still detect the drug at meaningful concentrations, and others that would be really difficult,” said Rick Sams.

“You can't assume that the limit of detection is the same for all substances.”

The price of positives
Regardless of testing method, most jurisdictions call for confirmation after a positive test is discovered. Florida's contract requires instrumentation testing as a follow-up to a positive test. The financial part of the agreement, however, deals with one lump sum paid from the state to the lab, with no written provisions for the additional expense of such follow-up tests.

“Finding positives is expensive,” said Benson. “It's interesting to determine whether the laboratories have that as part of their contract, or if it's an additional part. If they don't get extra [for test confirmations], there's kind of an unwritten encouragement not to find things.”

What does it all mean?
The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association requires a high level of testing and a sizable list of drug tests for graded stakes races regardless of the state hosting them. On an average card, though, Benson said it's hypothetically possible that horses could be running on illegal substances with impunity—because samples are not being tested for them.

“To me, if your labs aren't, at a minimum, testing the TOBA graded stakes list [for every race] and the RMTC thresholds, I don't know why you would bother to do it,” said Benson. “If those are the things we're truly concerned about in our best horses, why aren't we concerned about it in our lesser horses?”

Currently, Benson said the RMTC is focused on accrediting labs with top-notch methods (like instrumentation testing) if they can demonstrate consistent and accurate results on proficiency samples. The accreditation program has certified three labs since 2013, with five others working through the process.

“We actually had an individual come over from Europe to do a site inspection,” said Benson, referring to a required inspection for the RMTC accreditation process. “He actually said they were doing as good a job, if not better than they do in Europe. So, for those laboratories, I have no doubt that they're doing a good job on every sample and I think that as we get through the accreditation process, we know that the labs that we are accrediting have the ability to do that same work—it's whether they have the ability to do it on every sample per their contract.

“It seems a very big shame to not utilize our labs to their fullest.”

Benson said one of her long-term goals is to begin educating commissions on the basics of the various testing methods, and writing a strong RFP.

In the meantime, it appears there are certain racing jurisdictions in which it may be easier to get away with cheating than others. Benson and Sams fear that horsemen have already figured out which are which.

  • albany

    There are a number of substances that pharmaceutical companies were developing that improve the ability of hemoglobin to carry oxygen or augment the capacity of normal respiration and cellular function. Many of these compounds were tested in lab animals and early clinical trials but were dropped from further development for one reason or another. Although these compounds were not fully developed, the scientific literature is full of manuscripts describing these compounds, their chemical formula and physiological function. A smart, unethical person could easily have these prepared for equine use. I am not close to the testing protocols, but I wonder if the testing labs are reactive (testing for substances after they have been identified as being used) or proactive (testing for potential performance enhancing compounds that have the potential of being used)?

    • Tinky

      The answer to your question is, quite obviously, reactive. Look no further that Cobalt, which was identified as having performance enhancing potential more than 10 years before Jeff Gural (of the Standardbred world) decided to test for it. Only after he found positives at The Meadowlands did the American Thoroughbred industry begin to pay attention.


    • fb0252

      do these substances improve performance in sprint racing?

      • Tinky

        Yes, though they are more potent in stamina-testing events (which is why EPO was first abused among cyclists).

        • fb0252

          u r the expert–no sarcasm intended. explain, however, how EPO etc. would work for a horse since they have the natural flight mechanism of increasing O2 uptake by spleen contraction which increases #s of circulating red blood cells?

          • Tinky

            Let’s phrase your question slightly differently: Is it possible for a the performance of a racehorse to be enhanced by chemicals? The unequivocal answer is “Yes”. While it is true that horses are well-designed to run fast, increasing the available oxygen, whether through blood-doping or broncho-dilation (e.g. clenbuterol), will always increase performance.

            Put another way, it may be true that EPO is even more potent when used by human athletes for performance enhancement, but it was used successfully for many years in the racing game as well.

          • Wilma Jean

            Performance enhancing? Do all these “drugs” you speak of really enhance a horses performance? Or so they simply allow them to run the best of their ability? Any given horse can only run so fast, their legs can only go as fast they can go, some faster, some slower than others. I don’t care what you give them, it doesn’t make their legs go any faster!!

          • Tinky

            I’m afraid that you don’t understand the role that oxygen plays in performance enhancement. The more oxygen that is available the greater the stamina, and the faster their legs will be moving towards the end of races.

  • Peyton Charles Lasiter

    Very informative without a lot of frivolous opinion. How would I find out the number of tests and results conducted in Arkansas for the last meet? It doesn’t seem to be readily available to the public but I may not be looking in the right place. Arkansas’ budget of $166K seems very low compared to the bids sited for Maryland and California.

    • betterthannothing

      Peyton, good question and point re. AR’ very low budget.

      Natalie, thank you for such hard work and very professional, informative article.

  • Hamish

    Informative piece. Seems anyone that wants to beat the system can probably do so just by figuring out what the various labs can actually detect and when these specific test are being conducted. Being caught for using drugs in your horse by a testing lab becomes more of a “cheater’s dare” than a distinct possibility.

    • Tinky

      That’s exactly correct. Which is why you see such sharp disparities in the winning percentages of certain trainers from track to track.

      • ThePelican

        Correct. It has nothing to do with the varying quality of horse from track to track. Only the drugs cause the disparity.

        • Gayle Meyers

          A popular and older handicap horse still running, comes to mind…

  • Tinky

    Excellent article, Natalie.

    While not surprising, this tells us all that we need to know about how serious the multi-billion dollar industry is about fighting PEDs and those who use them. Spend half of what would be necessary to use the most advanced tests, and “hold $10,000 in reserve to help develop tests for new drugs in the future.”

    $10,000!? The winner of the fourth race at Aqueduct today – a $12.5k NW3 for F&M – will earn $13,000.

    • turffan

      While I share your sentiments, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Indiana for only putting 10k aside. I may be reading to much between the lines but surely if one of the major states like KY,NY,CA or FL had a stronger testing protocol she would have used them as an example instead. Should Indiana put a million on hold & carry the burden for the whole country? Or should all other states & alphabet orgs follow there lead & join in the fight? 10k may not be enough but apparently it stands out as an exception.

      • Tinky

        While there is certainly going to be variance from state to state, the fact is that $10k is a joke in the context of any individual state. They might as well spend it on a concert for the fans at Indiana Downs.

        As I’ve suggested many times before – including on this very thread – the fact that the whole industry was caught by surprise re: Cobalt is ample evidence that NO state is spending serious money to help develop tests for “new” drugs. They weren’t even testing for a drug that was known about ten years earlier!

        • turffan

          I agree 10k isn’t enough. But what if all the states put up 10k, then that would be a good start. 50-100k each is probably a more realistic number. I’m just saying someone has to start it and at least that’s more than most are doing.

          • Tinky

            I don’t disagree, but my cynicism prevents me from being optimistic.

          • turffan

            If any commission out there has the [email protected]!!z to do something drastic, it’s the IHRC. They have a history of pissing horseman off by siding with the good of the horse & the sport.

  • Voice of Reason

    Let’s call a spade a spade. The reason drug testing is not being performed to the best of the industry’s abilities is because of short term thinking. Tracks are deathly afraid that if they crack down, the number of average starters will plummet. They believe this because too many of today’s horses have some form of lameness, and the foal crops are low. There is not enough “horse flesh” to satisfy the bettor’s demands. It is all about number of starters per race.

    • ptrckj7777

      lets call a dollar a dollar.”finding positives is expensive.”

    • Memories of Puchi

      It is the state racing commissions (state government) that set the rules and conduct the testing, not the racetracks, so you have presented an invalid point.

      • bryane

        and who do you think those commissions listen to/ the racetracks that give them a reason to exist or the general public who barely know they exist and have no contact with them? the point presented is very valid. but i’m guessing you knew that. :)

      • Voice of Reason

        I guess you never heard of house rules.

  • togahombre

    The individual racing commisions are wholly responsible for writing the requirements of their testing protocols, why should florida be any surprise, they don’t even have a state tco2 threshold level set, putting all these racing commisioners together in the RCI doesn’t make their judgment any better,its the opposite, they can hide behind each other.

    • Peyton Charles Lasiter

      Very good comment. IMO

  • fb0252

    Does every $5000 claiming race need to be tested for every substance known to man and woman?

    • Tinky

      You apparently don’t understand how effective testing works. It’s never about testing ALL of the athletes, it’s about the POSSIBILITY that they will be tested.

      • Peyton Charles Lasiter

        But additionally the penalties need to be enough to deter the ones who are afraid they could get caught. Right now a lot of fines and suspensions are simply not enough to scare anybody.

        • Tinky

          Absolutely correct.

    • Black Helen

      If you care about the horse it does.
      Leg scans and pre race exams would go along ways and they should be mandatory at every track in the country!!!
      Little expense would save many a life.
      Not gonna catch the crooks, at least we can protect the horses, doped or not doped, the legs go first.

      • fb0252

        u r the only one i’ve seen advocate this besides myself. way too costly probably for all races + we’d be trying to figure out what conditions to permit into races and what to exclude–something currently left to the trainer. TV races– latest technology for pre-race injury checks, and people should start yelling about this. Instead we talk “drugs”.

      • betterthannothing

        BH, I totally agree with you (again!). Pre-race exams are very important and must be well done by informed regulatory veterinarians and transparent equine medical records are needed to perform those exams efficiently. Off-competition exams are also very important as is paying attention to all red flags, including lame horses in training, six-figure earners taking the plunge through claiming levels, etc. Giving horses the appearance of fitness and health with legal and illegal drugs and treatments that fool horses, jockeys and endanger both, and deceive buyers and horseplayers in order to fill races, boost the handle and dump horses is cruel and criminal and it must end.

        And Peyton, yes penalties need to be so severe that cheating is not worth the risk! Life has to become hell for abusers and cheaters.

        • Birdy2

          If the pre-race exams were as stringent as the post-race exams now are in California when a horse has been claimed… you can complete the sentence no doubt. I, too, am a big believer in an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and ALWAYS got films of my horses’ ankles and knees prior to every race. Found a bone chip that way. No heat, no swelling, filly had run a solid 2nd her previous out… and there it was. Hadn’t invaded the joint capsule, easily removed, filly came back to win several times and retired to a career in eventing, but what if we’d run her with that chip? You get my point, I’m sure.

      • Birdy2

        Been saying this forever. Radiographs are not expensive. My horses ALWAYS had both ankles and both knees x-rayed before every race (and I’m Miss Nobody, not rich and not running any stakes horses). I’ve been analyzing the data (confidentials) from Laurel Park deaths in 2013, and the lack of preventive vet exams, radiographs, sonograms is appalling. Drugs like you wouldn’t believe prescribed for God only knows what reason, and no diagnosis (no films) to explain WHY all the drugs (expensive) and why not the radiographs (not expensive). I’m glad to see someone else who thinks this way. Thanks for posting!

  • Richard C

    Wear the blinkers and count the cash….and hope that someone does not blow a hole in the game by raising a fuss which eventually goes national.

    • Vudu

      Darn whistle-blowers are always causing trouble by pointing to the cheaters! ;)

      Ever notice that often the whistle-blowers are trusted LESS than the guilty?

  • Sue M. Chapman

    Correct, Tinky And how the highest percent trainers run very hot at a track, and suddenly disappear. Some find new magic, while others leave town. If the drug testing can’t be identical, how can we expect people to wager on horseracing?

  • Sue M. Chapman

    Thank you, Natalie Voss for this informative, well researched article.

  • Patricia Jones

    sounds like its what results you want good very good or excellent

  • Kberg

    What does Louisiana test for does anybody have a clue?

    • Peyton Charles Lasiter

      Karl? Surely you jest.

    • Vudu

      Hot Sauce?

      • Vudu

        “Who Stole the Hot Sauce?”

  • Cheat

    Nothing will ever improve until all states are doing out of competition testing for medications which bolster the red blood cells. This is why racing a joke and there are an enourmous amount of 30% trainers when the gold standard Woody Stephens fired at a 23% clip with a caliber stock.

    • betterthannothing

      Great point. Future race horses should have biological/blood passports established as they turn two to help detect abnormally high red blood cell counts around competition since dope like EPO and Mircera are nearly impossible to catch.

    • Black Helen

      Super Trainers with White Bridled Steroid ooozing Super Beasts

  • Cheat

    Here is a crazy notion. If states are going to gyp and use ELISA, why not budget for one LCMS per card (one winner)? This would keep costs down and eventually catch the blood doper.

  • sammyfrommiami

    PENN NATIONAL train their and you can go from .03 to .30 in about 3 weeks.

  • Teresa Bossow

    Ban all drugs and make the trainers pay out pocket for the best testing available when random testing is done. If no drugs are allowed, massive testing would not be an issue for the tracks at all. Owners and trainers can pay for testing when asked.. your doping your done! Clean up horse racing.

  • Elliott Ness

    After reading this, am convinced if they tested at the highest standards all of the archive samples that exist, there may be so many suspensions , it could shut down horse racing for a decade.

  • theloopsteer

    I am tired of all the smoke and mirrors. Most of us horseman don’t get “Perception is realty” we continue to fight change while Rome burns. The only solution I see No drugs at any detection level allowed in a horse running a race. This is a game changer that’s been done all over the world to promote the public’s confidence in the game. Maybe we need to import trainers from other country’s to show us the way.

    • Vudu

      Interesting. Should improve the bloodlines as well – if frailties are not patched or hidden with meds.

      Will it happen when its a dollar game? Sounds like venue shrinkage.

      What happens to tracks who cannot find enough naturally sound horses to run?
      Do they just become casinos with a lot of parking?

      Wasn’t finding enough quality horses to run a problem 30+ years ago when they expanded racing rather quickly?

    • Gayle Meyers

      I agree. With zero tolerance, as well.

    • albany

      I wouldn’t be so complimentary of how its done in other countries. You think the Americans are the only ones who try to get an edge using something that is not yet tested for?

  • jttf

    this info makes sense. when illinois has a slew of violations in a short period of time, it is usually the same med. which means illinois is most likely only testing for a few certain meds. arkansas having such a small amount of money doesnt surprise me either. big name trainers with 20 or more past violations bring horses in here and win by huge margins and have high win percentages. the owners of oaklawn didnt do a thing to asmussen. so santana and asmussen went on a tear the last seven days of the meet.

  • Vudu

    What happens to the money awarded, when a test comes up positive after the race was run?
    They can take the win purse back, I guess.

    The downside of that is bad press for the track
    & some ire if the cheating winner is disqualified,
    because the people who cashed the tickets are long gone & that will never be adjusted.

    Therefore, if they don’t do this carefully to prevent having to DQ for performance enhanced wins after the fact, its going to have some occasional downsides for the oval.

  • Gallop

    Now that you have cost information for these contracts, it would be interesting to see what USADA would be quoting to do the same volume of tests.

  • “It seems a very big shame to not utilize our labs to their fullest.”
    Did anyone explain to him that “shame” is not “cost-effective,” and that’s why we only spend the money for the “less-expensive to cheapest” spectrum of the testing?

  • Hamish

    After reviewing this piece again, it seems to blow a hole in the current industry regulatory rhetoric about being so good at testing, and that less than 1% of the samples turn up positive, and that most of those are for therapeutic overdoses. It appears that some labs might not be able to find salt in urine, while others don’t even consistently test for what they can find. Glad this has been brought to light and would hope to see a similar exercise showing proficiencies, or lack thereof, from all testing labs. Then present all the data to the USADA and let that group analyze it and produce a report on how they will improve the system as part of being selected the independent third party in the Congress bill, HR 2012.

  • crookedstick

    doc Blach has the answer… eat the also-rans.

  • McQ

    It baffles me that every race testing laboratory doesn’t have a mass spec, I understand they are hideously expensive, but come on, there should be one at every lab that does testing for chemicals, especially those linked to a University. I’ve done ELISA and “used” (my TA used it because the University only had a few and they’re highly sensitive and expensive) mass spec…ELISA in my experience is far more labor intensive, and for the kits we ran, highly objective.

    I’ve been in on pricing and purchasing scientific equipment, but the way they’re doing this is incredibly short-sighted. Mass spec should be used, period. It’s going to capture a lot more variation and significantly more reliable. Science doesn’t lie….but only when you actually do it.

    • fb0252

      cost per test? it’s other than that there’s an unlimited budget.

      • betterthannothing

        Economies of scale.

  • Linda Broussard

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  • hype22redux

    money that’s the issue…well 5 years and 2,000,000….how about the public losing to illegitimate winners yes someone wins but usually not the honest bettor,he loses to the dishonest wagerer .Sad but the sport I used to love is now just a passing fantasy the drug trainers haqve taken over the sport until that changes I am a much smaller participant….

  • Michael Castellano

    One can only wonder, in the absence of the broader methods of testing, what horses are racing on these days. You’d like to think the best of trainers, but if they are not testing for certain substances, some will definitely be resorting to the juice. Once somebody gets “hot|”, the betters will suspect the worst, rightly or wrongly. It’s a problem in many sports these days, and with the amount in racing purses increasing in many locations, it may be a temptation which cannot be ignored.

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