Updated on 09/18/2011 1:43AM

EPO cheaters can now be nailed


TUCSON, Ariz. - The $1 million Haskell and and $1.5 million Hambletonian and the 70,000 people who turned out to see them, along with Marylou Whitney's return from a stroke for her namesake race at Saratoga, grabbed racing headlines over the weekend.

The attention was deserved, but the longterm significance was overshadowed by a development far more important for the world of horse racing.

There now is a test for EPO - the drug itself, not just for antibodies created by it - and it has already produced results. Word of the new test came from Dr. Larry Soma, the veteran and highly regarded equine research director at the New Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

The test was developed by the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology

and Research Laboratory, a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture facility in West Chester, Pa., which collaborates with New Bolton and Soma. The PETRL, as the toxicology laboratory is known, has been financially supported for years by Pennsylvania's Thoroughbred and harness racing commissions and contributions from state horsemen's associations.

The support has paid off, big. The PETRL has become the first laboratory to directly confirm the presence in horses of erythropoietin (EPO) and darbepoetin alfa - substances that increase the production of red blood cells. According to people on the backstretch, EPO has become the drug of choice because it is difficult to detect and is believed to increase aerobic function and endurance.

Soma and toxicology lab director Dr. Cornelius Uboh started working on the test a few years ago, concentrating on oxyglobin, a simpler protein-based substance than EPO. Their ultimate goal was to isolate the EPO protein.

"We first were able to extract the protein from plasma though the work of a team led by Dr. Eric Birks," Soma said. "Then Dr. Fuyu Guan, who works closely with Dr. Uboh, was able to develop a brand new method of breaking apart the protein of the human EPO molecules into smaller fractions called peptides, thus allowing positive identification of the EPO itself, using very sensitive liquid chromatographic tandem mass spectrometry technology. Dr. Guan has been working on EPO and darbepoetin alfa and conducting experiments with research horses that have been administered EPO, and he was able to use that information as a model.

"We have optimized the method, and today we are able to make the positive EPO-darbepoetin alfa identification, not just the presence of antibodies that may be produced in the horse by the administration of human EPO to horses," Soma said.

Asked if he thought the test would stand up against court challenges, Dr. Uboh answered quickly. "No doubt," he said. "They can send these tests anywhere in the world for verification."

So the scientists have caught up with the crooks.

The first example came in Ontario, where the pacesetting Ontario Racing Commission, hearing of the West Chester research, asked if it could send samples there for verification of its own positive tests for EPO. That in itself was significant in a fraternity that at times zealously guards territorial imperatives. The West Chester tests confirmed what Ontario had found, and Ontario quickly suspended trainer Todd Gray and is recommending a 10-year suspension and $100,000 fine. A journeyman trainer until two years ago, Gray rose in the ranks with the pacer Rair Earth, a winner of $1.3 million and one of three Gray horses that tested positive for EPO.

The willingness of the Ontario commission and laboratory to send samples to a laboratory outside their normal testing protocol, and bear the considerable price of the sophisticated new testing, is an example of how racing can keep up with drugs that are expensive and difficult to detect.

So is the support from Thoroughbred and harness horsemen and the racing commissions in Pennsylvania for the West Chester testing program.

Unfortunately, it is not the end of the trail. The cheaters will not stop because of the latest discovery. They are likely, however, to stop using EPO, the scourge of the sport in recent months.

Horse racing in North America owes Drs. Soma, Uboh, Birks, Guan, and their team, a profound vote of thanks. Our industry is already better off for their efforts.