04/18/2017 6:36PM

Experts encourage industry to implement out-of-competition testing

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CHARLESTON, S.C. – The racing industry needs to focus far more of its efforts and resources in combating illegal drug use with the implementation of robust out-of-competition testing programs and the development of intelligence networks, according to drug-testing experts speaking at the Association of Racing Commissioners International annual conference in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday.

The speakers stressed that the development of new, hard-to-detect, long-lasting drugs should lead to a shift in enforcement efforts away from the racing industry’s traditional focus on post-race tests to the out-of-competition arena, with several noting that all sports are grappling with the same evolution, with varying degrees of success. That shift may also require the costly development of a so-called “biological passport” for horses, the experts said.

The points made by the speakers on Tuesday were not new to the racing industry, but the impetus to devote more resources to out-of-competition testing has gained traction recently in the racing industry as more and more sports have migrated away from day-of testing of athletes. That evolution has been forced in large part by the surging use of blood-doping and growth-enhancement substances, most of which are designed to evade detection and for use well before an athletic performance, and the emergence of substances with dubious credentials that are nonetheless being administered within prohibited windows of administration.

Dr. George Maylin, the director of New York’s drug-testing laboratory, told the audience of racing commissioners that erythropoietin, a common blood-doping drug, has 80 different known formulations, and that he “knows of no laboratory in the world that can detect all of them.” He also stressed that new drugs coming on the market will also likely be designed specifically to evade detection, requiring a commitment from racing commissions and racing organizations to provide a continuous source of funding to keep regulators in step with the drug abusers.

“We have to have methods that evolve,” Maylin said, speaking via Skype.

A handful of racing states have already implemented out-of-competition testing programs, but implementation across all U.S. racing states has been spotty, and critics of existing programs contend that they suffer from a lack of focus. In the Thoroughbred world, the out-of-competition testing programs have not turned up widespread proof of abuse of novel drugs, though the rate of positives has been higher when the programs target Standardbred horses and Quarter Horses.

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Brice Cote, a former detective with the New Jersey police unit assigned to racetracks, was hired several years ago to direct an investigative unit for the New Jersey and New York harness tracks owned by Jeff Gural. Cote said that out-of-competition testing programs have to be complemented by intelligence-gathering efforts that can guide regulators toward legitimate targets. That opinion was echoed by several other speakers on the Tuesday program.

“If you don’t have informants working for you, then you have no chance,” Cote said.

That information-gathering process can be complicated by the noise generated by critics who consistently complain that illegal drugs are being used on horses without identifying the specific drug, according to Dr. Antony Fontana, the technical director for Truesdail Laboratory in California. Without specific information, laboratories are not able to focus their detection efforts.

“ ‘Something’s being used on the backstretch’ is not enough information,” Fontana said, calling on cooperation between racetracks, commissions, and laboratories.

Dr. Scott Stanley, the principal chemist at California’s official drug-testing laboratory and a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California Davis, devoted his entire presentation to his ongoing research into the development of an equine biological passport. The concept of a biological passport has already been endorsed by many other sports due to its promise of being able to indicate the use of performance-enhancing drugs by detecting unnatural changes in a wide range of an athlete’s biological metrics, but the development of the concept and the validation of its methods requires an enormous amount of work and funding, Stanley said.

“It’s not a short, simple process,” Stanley said. “It’s not something we can execute in days or weeks. It will take years.”

After the panel, Stanley said that the development of the passport would require “a dedicated funding source,” a commitment that seems unlikely in the short-term for an industry that is struggling in many states. Those struggles are compounded by the current political environment, in which many state and federal legislators complain that government solutions are wastes of money.

Dr. Scott Palmer, the equine medical director for the New York Gaming Commission, nevertheless called on racing commissions to seek far more funding to enforce their regulatory mandates. He noted that New York’s out-of-competition testing program, which targets both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, has produced a 2 percent positive rate, compared with a 0.3 percent positive rate for its post-race testing program. (Out-of-competition testing programs typically produce a higher positive rate because most samples are drawn from horses trained by individuals who are under suspicion of using illegal drugs.)

“The limiting factor is money and personnel,” Palmer said. “With more money and more people, we’d find more.”