Uniformity In Penalties And Drug Thresholds? RCI And Pennsylvania Regulators Have Some Explaining To Do

by | 07.10.2018 | 8:09pm
Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International

To: Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI):

I read with great interest your testimony before Congress last month in the hearing regarding the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017. In your remarks, you defended our current system of medication regulation in the United States and stated there is “total uniformity in the use of progressive penalties and substantial uniformity in adoption of testing thresholds for 30 appropriate medications deemed normal and appropriate for equine care.”

You also stated, “horseracing does as good a job or as bad a job as the Olympics or any other sport.”

Given your faith in the effectiveness of our model and your standing as the president of RCI, I would like you to review the following series of cases in Pennsylvania. Please let me know if the actions taken (or not taken) in these cases constitute the high praise that you believe our regulatory system deserves.

I'll begin on Sept. 22, 2016, with a qualifying race at the Meadows harness track near Pittsburgh, Pa. Shawn Johnston trained a horse that day named Tremor Hanover. The Pennsylvania Equine Testing & Research Laboratory (PETRL) subsequently found that Tremor Hanover raced with impermissible levels of the drug betamethasone.

Betamethasone is a corticosteroid and is listed as a Class 4 therapeutic medication. The Association of Racing Commissioners International's (RCI) Controlled Therapeutic Substance List indicates that betamethasone is impermissible at levels in excess of 10 picograms per milliliter (pg/ml) of blood. In other words, over 10 pg/ml is a positive test.

The RCI's Penalty Guidelines indicate that the penalty for betamethasone (Class 4) overage for a first drug offense within a year is a minimum $1,000 fine and forfeiture of the purse.

Mr. Johnston waived his right to a split sample and accepted the standard penalty of a $1,000 fine. No purse forfeiture was necessary as qualifying races do not have purses.

On Aug. 30, 2016, approximately three weeks before Mr. Johnston's positive test, Rich Gillock trained a horse named Treasure Quest K that raced at Meadows. The PETRL subsequently found that Treasure Quest K raced with an impermissible level of betamethasone. The horse finished third. The purse was $9,500.

On Nov. 26, 2016, at the same Meadows track, Ron Burke trained a horse named Atta Boy Dan. The PETRL subsequently found that Atta Boy Dan raced with an impermissible level of betamethasone. The horse won. The purse was $20,000.

Mr. Gillock's case and Mr. Burke's case were handled differently from that of Mr. Johnston, even though the positive tests were reported by the same lab, for the same drug, at the same track, and within a few months of each other. The concentration of betamethasone in all three horses is presumed to be between 10 pg/ml and 100 pg/ml.

Mr. Gillock and Mr. Burke both received warnings. No rulings were issued. No fines imposed. No purses forfeited.

Mr. Gillock is president of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.

Mr. Burke is the all-time leading trainer in U.S. in harness racing's history.

Mr. Johnston's ruling was subsequently rescinded and the fine reimbursed.

What's the level?
In response to an inquiry to the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission (PSHRC), I was informed by email of the following:

The Pennsylvania State Racing Commission (SHRC) approved the ARCI Therapeutic Medication Guidelines for standardbred racing, which includes Betamethasone, on February 27, 2018. Prior to that date, the threshold level for Betamethasone in standardbred racing samples was 100 pg.

According to Don Harmon, that statement is contrary to the guidance the PSHRC had provided to the Standardbred racing industry in the state. Mr. Harmon, who served as the presiding judge at Pennsylvania's Harrah's Chester for 10 years through the 2017 race meet, said that on more than one occasion  all harness judges received threshold levels for all Standardbred race meets. The threshold level on these lists indicates betamethasone was 10 pg/ml. The documents provided to the judges were RCI's Controlled Therapeutic Substance List. No exception was made for betamethasone or any other drug. This list was widely circulated to the harness horsemen and used by veterinarians in the state.

More questions than answers
If the threshold level for betamethasone was 100 pg/ml, then why did the laboratory call a positive test on all three horses even though each had a concertation below 100 pg/ml?

If the threshold level was 100 pg/ml, why did commission staff forward these positives to the track for disciplinary action?

If the threshold level was 100 pg/ml, why would the judges at the track find a violation and issue a ruling penalizing Mr. Johnston?

If the threshold level was 100 pg/ml, after calling betamethasone positives in August, September, and November of 2016 in three horse with levels between 10 pg/ml and 100 pg/ml, a reasonable person might expect that calling such a positive test would never, ever happen again.

On July 11, 2017, at Meadows, a horse competing on the program was subsequently found with a level slightly under 100 pg/ml when considering the measurement of uncertainty. The laboratory finding was sent to Harrisburg and then forwarded to the track for appropriate disciplinary action. An internal commission document named Investigation Progress Report (IPR) contains the following two entries:

7/25/2017       BD Revington has called this sample POSITIVE for Betamethasone. Post-race positive report will be submitted, and PJ Clark has been notified.

7/31/2017       Per BD Revington, this sample is a WARNING only. Drug levels are within the parameters of error. THIS IPR IS NOW CLOSED.

The trainer of the horse is Ron Burke.

(BD Revington is Brett Revington, Standardbred bureau director for the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. PJ Clark is Anthony Clark, the presiding judge at Meadows.)

Another drug, and again, more questions
Flumethasone is a corticosteroid similar to betamethasone, dexamethasone, triamcinolone acetonide, Isoflupredone, and methylprednisolone. Unlike those other drugs, flumethasone is not on RCI's Controlled Therapeutic Substance List and no nationally approved threshold level exists.

Dr. Richard Sams has served as a laboratory director responsible for equine drug testing at The Ohio State University, University of Florida and, most recently, at LGC Laboratory in Lexington, Ky.

A recent study was presented at the 2016 International Conference of Racing Analysts and Veterinarians (ICRAV) in Uruguay. The topic was flumethasone administration. It was performed at the behest of the Centre for Preventive Doping Research in Cologne, Germany.

In interpreting the study's findings, Dr. Sam said, “The concentration of flumethasone falls below 100 pg/ml in all of the horses between five and 10 hours after dosing. This drug at or near 100 pg/ml is still producing clinical effects on the horse. We would call it (a positive test) above 10 pg/ml.”

In other words, a 100 pg/ml threshold level could permit race-day administration of flumethasone without triggering a positive test.

Back to Pennsylvania
From a race in August 2017, at the Meadows, internal commission records indicate that a horse was found to have flumethasone at a level of 95.4. The notation states, “RESCINDED BELOW 100 pg/ml THRESHOLD.”

Not a positive test below 100 pg/ml? Really?

And this isn't the only one.

This article was written based on a sliver of records for a relatively short time period.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

What else is out there?

Mr. Martin, is this, as you wrote in your statement to Congress, “total uniformity in the use of progressive penalties”? Is this the type of regulation you were referring to when you described it as “a state responsibility that is exercised effectively”?

I look forward to your reply.

Joe Gorajec served as the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission for 25 years (1990-2015). He is also a former chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (2008).

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