08/19/2001 11:00PM

Report: Drug testing is effective


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Very few trainers appear able to use potent banned medications in horses and get away with it, according to a report issued by a task force set up by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

The task force, established two years ago to analyze the state of drug testing in the United States, examined 1,272 post-race urine samples that had already tested clean and showed only 22 of them, or 1.7 percent, contained either Class 1, 2, or 3 drugs. The majority of the 22 positives were for medications that have some therapeutic value for the horse. The report was released on Sunday at The Jockey Club's annual Round Table conference.

Although one of the positives was for a Class 1 drug that was almost certainly administered to enhance a horse's performance, the report did not show that any one particular medication or drug was being routinely abused and then missed by the sport's testing laboratories.

The samples were taken from nearly every track in 28 of the country's 32 racing jurisdictions starting in April 2000. The task force used two state-of-the-art facilities to analyze the samples in order to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of current drug-testing procedures. After an initial round of testing at regular labs, the samples were forwarded to the task force without any identifying marks so the positives could not be traced back to any specific trainer or horse. They were then subjected to a wide range of additional tests that officials said were capable of detecting nearly all known prohibited substances.

"[The results] tell us that better testing leads to increased detection," said Dr. Gary Lavin, a veterinarian who served on the task force. "And they point to the need for improvement, not only in testing but in the associated areas of regulation, research, communication, and jurisprudence."

The Class 1 drug likely administered as a performance enhancer that was found in one of the samples was dextromoramide bitartrate, a synthetic narcotic that is two to four times as potent as morphine. Dextromoramide, which is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for either humans or animals, had never been detected in the United States.

The 21 other positives included another Class 1, cocaine. Nine positives were for clenbuterol, the Class 3 bronchial dilator that has become one of the most prevalent therapeutic medications in racing, and another four were for guanabenz, a Class 3 sedative. Three were for clonidine, another Class 3 sedative; two were for triplennamine, a Class 3 antihistamine; one was for buspirone, a Class 2 sedative; and the other was for caffeine, a Class 2 stimulant.

Many of the drugs that were detected, including cocaine and caffeine, are frequently the result of accidental contamination, and others may have been detected at very low concentrations due to the sensitivity of the tests, officials said. Because of the findings, task force officials said, research and testing should in the next several years should concentrate on the detection of drugs that act as sedatives or calming agents.

Since Class 3 drugs can be both performance enhancing and therapeutic, it is unclear whether the horses were given the drugs exclusively to affect their racing performances. Task force officials would not reveal the levels of the drugs found in the samples, so it is unclear if the results pointed to instances of deliberate doping or positives for drugs that had been administered well before race day.

"We can't characterize any of these administrations as to whether it was given a long way out or close [to a race]," said Scott A. Waterman, the task force's director of methods and procedures.

The dextromoramide result was troubling on several fronts. Racing regulators typically believe that the first detection of a drug comes only after it has been widely abused, raising the possibility that dextromoramide is already being used in racing. Since dextromoramide is not approved in the U.S., it would be a crime to obtain and administer the drug. That the drug is synthetic suggests that it was being used deliberately.

The report was also notable for what it did not find.

The analysis failed to turn up any positives for oxycontin or Viagra, prescription medications for humans that have been the subjects of rumors in the industry for more than a year. Jim Gallagher, the executive director of the task force, said that if either drug were in any of the samples, the testing would have been able to pick them up.

"I think that result shows that we're probably doing a lot more significant testing than a lot of other sports," Gallagher said.

Gallagher and other task force officials acknowledged, however, that current drug tests still cannot detect EPO, or erythropoietin, the banned blood-doping drug that is favored by some endurance athletes like cyclists and long-distance runners and skiers.

Task force officials acknowledged that EPO is representative of a chronic problem in horse racing. Drug users can avoid detection by staying one step ahead of the technology used by testing laboratories. The task force is searching for a way to detect EPO, but even the world of cycling, which continues to be rocked by EPO scandals, has failed to find an effective test.

"There is a whole class of drugs coming on to the market that can be very hard to find, things like blood-doping agents and drugs that are hormonally based," said Waterman. "Those are going to be two areas that will continue to be very difficult for researchers."