09/08/2011 7:19PM

Report finds that testing shows minimal drug abuse


LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Association of Racing Commissioners International has claimed in a report released Thursday that, in 2010, fewer than half of 1 percent of U.S. equine drug tests came back positive for a substance not allowed on race day.

According to the RCI report, racing regulatory agencies sent 324,215 biological samples to testing laboratories, and more than 99.5 percent were found to contain no foreign or prohibited substance.

Thirty-two U.S. jurisdictions responded to the RCI’s survey for this report.

The report touts equine drug testing standards as “the most aggressive drug testing program of any professional sport, testing for more substances with greater sensitivity,” and says that cases of doping – such as drugging a horse to influence the outcome of a race – are rare, representing 0.015 percent of tested samples. Those were 47 of the 324,915 total samples tested that were positive for Class 1 or 2 substances that indicate deliberate doping.

More common, although still characterized as “rare” by the RCI, were violations associated with the administration of a legal medication by a licensed veterinarian in the normal course of equine care. Of positive samples, 94 percent were overages of legal therapeutic medications, mostly Class 4 substances, according to the report. The 10-year trend for findings that might be characterized as “doping” has remained flat, while there has been a decline during the past decade in the number of therapeutic overages that have resulted in regulatory action. Total medication actions in 2010 were 20 percent less than 2001, although RCI noted it was not prepared to describe it as a trend, an RCI statement accompanying the report said.

“Violations remain relatively rare, and this has remained constant over the past decade,” the report said.

The RCI report appears designed to combat a May 2011 push by a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers to outlaw raceday medication and ban trainers or veterinarians, and the affected horses, for life after three medication violations. Major international racing jurisdictions, including Europe and Japan, ban raceday medication. Most domestic racing states also ban raceday medications with the exception of furosemide, a diuretic commonly known as Lasix that is used to reduce bleeding from the lungs.

Recently, the Breeders’ Cup announced it would ban all race-day drugs, including furosemide, in its 2-year-old World Championships races. The American Graded Stakes Committee followed suit with a pilot program to ban furosemide in juvenile graded stakes in 2012. Earlier this year, the racing commissioners’ group called for phasing out race-day medication in the United States over five years, a move that the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association opposes.

On the subject of furosemide, Thursday’s RCI report said: “Since most horses race with furosemide it is a disservice to the sport to contend that one horse has an unfair advantage over another in a particular contest. . . . It is wrong to equate the use of this medication to paint a picture that racing is ‘drug-ridden.’ ”

According to the RCI survey, there were 36 furosemide violations out of the 324,215 samples tested, a drop of 33 percent from a decade ago.

But the drug remains an issue, as a hot topic within the industry and for its public image, as RCI chairman Willie Koester seemed to acknowledge earlier this year during the RCI’s annual convention in march.

“Today over 99 percent of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70 percent of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four hours before a race,” Koester said in a widely-quoted comment during the convention. “That just does not pass the smell test with the pubic or anyone else except horse trainers who think it necessary to win a race. I’m sure the decision-makers at the time meant well when these drugs were permitted. However, this decision has forced our jurisdictions to juggle threshold levels as horsemen become more desperate to win races and has given horse racing a black eye.”

Thursday’s RCI report concluded: “The statistics in this report should not be interpreted to say that there are not challenges facing horse racing’s drug testing program. New substances are developed each year, and there are individuals willing to use them on a horse in an attempt to enhance performance or cheat. Those who administer substances that would never be condoned by a licensed veterinarian must be caught and properly sanctioned. To do this, investments in research and investigations are essential if racing’s drug testing program is to remain as strong as it is today.”