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.

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