09/16/2010 12:40PM

Zero-tolerance policy causing total confusion

DRF Illustration

After his picture was taken in the winner’s circle following the sixth race Aug. 6 at Arlington Park, a lanky chestnut named Malibu Vice was led up a tunnel and under the grandstand by his groom. The pair continued out through the paddock and followed a horse path cutting across a parking lot to the stables. Malibu Vice and his groom, no officials present, walked to a small barn at the back of the property – the test barn.

Waived in by security, Malibu Vice was taken to a bathing stall, and minutes later, a woman emerged from an office, carrying a red plastic tag labeled ‘600’ − ‘6’ for race 6, ‘00’ designating the race winner. She pulled back Malibu Vice’s upper lip, read his identifying tattoo, recorded the numerals on a label, and clipped on the tag. Bathed, Malibu Vice was walked around the barn until he had cooled out from his race. The groom turned the horse loose in a stall. In came another woman carrying a lined plastic cup attached to an 18-inch handle. She began whistling, encouraging the horse to urinate. After Malibu Vice obliged, the woman took the cup into the office, and a third woman separated the urine into two plastic vials, carefully labeled. The vials were placed in a box on a refrigerator shelf. About an hour after Malibu Vice’s win, a state-employed veterinarian drew blood, the sample again divided, put in tubes, labeled, and stored in the refrigerated box, which, holding all the samples taken during the racing day, would be transported by courier to the Illinois Racing Board’s testing laboratory.

The whole procedure is commonplace in the racing world. It happens every race day at every racetrack in every state with parimutuel wagering. But the findings at the lab are ripping at the sport’s fabric, a clash between increasingly sophisticated tests and out-of-date rules and regulations.

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At many laboratories, so-called super-tests are being conducted, employing the gold standard of mass spectrometry. The technique produces something like a chemical fingerprint; it can detect substances down to the picogram level. How much is a picogram? It is .000000000001 grams. An angel on the head of a pin would not escape notice.

The technology has eagerly been deployed. The breakdown of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness, the breakdown of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, and congressional hearings on horse racing later that year gravely wounded racing’s public image during a period of economic contraction.

“I need not remind you of where we were as an industry just two years ago at this time, but it is necessary for a perspective,” said Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Assocation, at The Jockey Club’s annual Round Table conference in the summer. “We had been forced to take a hard look at ourselves and our sport as never before. It was a difficult period of self-examination and introspection. To me, and I’m sure you, most troubling were the results of national polling about perceptions of our sport from casual fans of horse racing, our core fans, and our own participants. The results showed that across all lines, our sport was perceived as being consumed with, and compromised by, the illicit use of performance enhancing drugs.”

Spectacular lab technology has come into conflict with racing’s so-called zero-tolerance policy for most commonly used therapeutic medications, which are routinely employed in the care of the horse but illegal on race day. Zero tolerance means that if urine or blood reveals even a minute quantity of an innocuous medication – a mild tranquilizer for a van ride, a bronchodilator administered in dirty city air – a drug positive is called. The trainer is fined, suspended, or both. The horse is disqualified, its owner losing any purse earnings.

“You literally have to hold your breath every time a horse goes to the test barn,” said Todd Pletcher, one of the country’s perennial leading trainers.

By calling positive after positive for tiny levels of non-performance-enhancing medications, racing regulators may actually be validating the public notion that racing is awash in performance-enhancing drugs. Yet regulators face a difficult situation.

“Zero tolerance means no foreign substance,” said Mark Laino, executive director of the Illinois Racing Board. “That’s what it is.”

The core of the problem is a troubled regulatory apparatus that lacks a central authority and instead is administered by 37 state jurisdictions, where drug policy has not kept up with testing technology. Those test barns on backstretches, like the one at Arlington? They’re still commonly referred to as spit boxes.

“Some of the rules we have were written when they actually used the spit box,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine director of the California Racing Board. “They would look for crystals of cocaine and heroin in the horse’s mouth. This was in the 1930s. That’s how the term spit box came into being.”

Arthur is prominent in a movement to bridge the gap between the world of super-sensitive testing and a regulatory atmosphere still locked into zero tolerance.

“There’s no such thing as zero tolerance,” Arthur said, voicing a position held by many prominent veterinarians as well as most horsemen. “Drugs are excreted over a period of time, and you can make the argument that once a horse has an injection there always will be a residue of that drug. If you look at people who have ever been exposed to DDT, they’re very likely to have DDT in their body the rest of their lives.”

To Arthur and other equine medical professionals, zero tolerance has no meaning because some level of drugs can always be found with sensitive enough testing. All states start with a zero-tolerance baseline, but the more progressive jurisdictions, such as California, Louisiana, and Kentucky, have begun instituting threshold levels for various therapeutic medications.

Most positives are called for commonly used and generally accepted therapeutic medications. Many of these medications fall into Classes 4 and 5 on the Uniform Classification of Foreign Substances established by the Association or Racing Commissioners International, drugs with little or no chance of enhancing performance. Through years of using the most common drugs, horsemen, veterinarians, and regulatory bodies have established withdrawal times, the amount of time before a horse’s race when a drug must be stopped to avoid generating a positive test. But the new generation of testing equipment combined with zero-tolerance policies have rendered many of those withdrawal times moot.

“If they had zero tolerance, they’d have no racing,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, a horseman with a squeaky-clean reputation. “There is no such thing. It’s the most ridiculous standard that, with today’s refined testing, they could make.”

At Arlington earlier this summer, there was a rash of rulings issued for clenbuterol, a drug in widespread use in racehorses as a bronchodilator, a medication akin to an asthmatic’s inhaler. Trainers and vets were treating horses with clenbuterol according to withdrawal times in practice there, but this summer super-tests were being administered to race winners.

“With these new super-tests, you need to change the withdrawal times for clenbuterol,” said trainer Dale Bennett, who has appealed his clenbuterol positives. “I was shocked. I had no clue, and the vets didn’t know either.”

Later in the Arlington meeting, eight positives for a less well-known Class 3 non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, etodolac, were called, six in horses owned by Frank Calabrese, Arlington’s leading owner. Etodolac is not FDA approved for use in horses − though neither are many other drugs regularly administered − and many people would consider an etodolac positive a more serious violation than one for clenbuterol. Both medications fall into the ARCI’s Class 3. The veterinarian on the Arlington backstretch administering the drug, Dr. James Gilman, never denied giving the medication. Gilman said he firmly believes etodolac has a legitimate use treating a particular type of bone problem. He said he was following the same five-day withdrawal time for etodolac he had used for eight years without getting a positive test. But the testing regimen had changed, and with heightened sensitivity came positives.

Trainer Ingrid Mason had a horse test positive for etodolac at Arlington, but Mason contends that while some horses in her barn had been treated with the drug, the one who tested positive had not. If so, this could be a case of environmental contamination, another bane to the testing system. In California in the 1990s, there were a number of cocaine positives that were eventually determined to have been caused by a residue of the drug accumulating on money − from money onto hands that worked with horses, and from there into the horses’ systems.

Environmental contamination can only become more problematic with ever-heightened test sensitivity. Just last month, the New Mexico Racing Commission resolved the case of Stolis Winner, the 2008 winner of the All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, the best known Quarter Horse race in the country. Stolis Winner had been disqualified from his All American win after a blood test revealed the presence of caffeine, but the commission reversed the disqualification. A report on the matter described a party in the Ruidoso test barn the night before the All American at which coffee, soda, and chocolate cake – all of which contain caffeine – had been served. Samples of bedding and other substances in stalls at other test barns have been taken and tested; often, they have come back positive for medications illegal on race day.

Illinois racing administrators added a specific etodolac test to its drug-testing regimen in 2010 because the drug is illegal on race day. Some Arlington horsemen pushed the boundaries, trying to reduce soreness, lessen pain, and keep horses in training shape, a practice that Arthur said regulators in California tried to take into account by announcing lab changes that might otherwise be invisible.

“You don’t want to play ‘gotcha’ with therapeutic drugs,” Arthur said. “If you are testing for drugs that you know are being abused − if you knew that someone was using [the blood-doping agent] epogen or something − you’re under no obligation to let them know. But we [in California] announce when we make major changes in therapeutic drugs. If a laboratory changes a procedure, we let the horsemen know.”

That kind of knowledge evidently was not passed along at Canterbury Park this summer, when a wave of positive tests swept through Minnesota. In July, 55 positives were called, more than twice as many as in all of 2009. The Minnesota Racing Commission is in the process of reviewing the tests, with a chance that all or some could be thrown out. Was cheating rampant at the track? Hardly. The laboratory to which Canterbury samples are sent, Industrial Laboratories in Colorado, had changed equipment. Suddenly, legal therapeutic medication of the past was illegal. Zero tolerance.

“Now it seems like they can pick you up for something when you follow the rules,” said Canterbury’s leading trainer, Mac Robertson. “It’s like that phantom holding call in football.”
Robertson was called for two positives at Canterbury. One was for naproxen, a commonly used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Robertson withdrew the drug as usual during training. The horse tested positive at the two-nanogram level, two-billionths of a gram.

But what were Minnesota officials to do? The drug was in the horse’s system on race day. The rules said that was an offense.

“[Regulators] don’t have a lot of flexibility simply by the way regulations are written, and the way state government works,” Arthur said. “Sometimes I think it creates more problems than it solves. It’s something that has been discussed at the highest level, how we deal with many of the violations that aren’t infractions. What sounds worse than ‘isoxuprine?’ I mean, that’s a nasty-sounding drug. But it’s totally innocuous. You couldn’t influence the outcome of a race if you had a gallon of isoxuprine behind the starting gate.”

In fact, almost all drug positives being called are of the minor variety. So far in 2010, there have been over 400 medication-related rulings against Thoroughbreds in the United States, according to information collected by the ARCI and available on website of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an industry research group. Not one positive has been called for a Class 1 drug, the most serious, and only four Class 2 Thoroughbred violations made the RMTC list. One of those was for caffeine, which regularly produces positives tests, not because it was administered to a horse, but because of environmental contamination.

“There are very, very few findings of that sort of substance,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director for the Kentucky Horseracing Commission. “The take-home message is that, really, this sport is a lot cleaner than people think it is.”

“Horses actually are tested for more drugs at a lower level than in any other sport,” Arthur said.

When horsemen are notified of altered testing regimens, they tend to alter their use of drugs. Anabolic steroids weren’t illegal in the U.S. until a couple of years ago, but once racing decided to ban their presence on race day, horsemen almost universally complied. Dr. Adam Negrusz, the director of the Illinois laboratory, said his lab had found just four anabolic steroid overages in the course of its testing.

There does exist the belief that committed cheaters will stay one step ahead of lab chemists. Really, only a blunderer would try to cheat with a medication on the ARCI Class 1 list. There clearly is a better chance of getting away with using a medication that is not well known, though the best testing equipment is supposed to detect anything unusual, identifiable or not.

“I guess I scratch my head at why six or seven guys can be 75 percent win off the claim,” New York trainer John Kimmel said. “That’s a hard thing to figure out. There are some medications we seem to be ignorant about that are obviously getting through.”

In this regard, Kimmel praised the new trend toward unannounced, out-of-competition testing at private farms or sometime in the middle of a training cycle when a race isn’t at hand. Out-of-competition testing has gained popularity in the U.S., with Kentucky recently approving the practice, and it is already widely employed in England, according to Dr. Tim Morris, director of equine science and welfare for the British Horseracing Authority. Morris said England has moved away from the blind screening of one winner and one randomly selected horse from a given race – the way things are usually done in this country – and toward intelligence-led target testing.

“We’ve moved away from post-race testing,” Morris said. “Still the majority is post-race, but we have much wider criteria: Betting patterns, performance on the day, stewards watching the race, vets with information. It’s no longer the only way, no longer formulaic. We also do pre-race testing and out-of-competition testing, and all that is driven by intelligence. We use the structures that law enforcement uses to gather information. We rely on patterns building up. It’s good use of racing’s resources, but it’s also more effective.”

England has one centralized laboratory where all testing is performed. So does Canada. In the United States, however, testing is done at many laboratories, some with different types of equipment, making uniform testing procedures impossible. Moreover, guidance on withdrawal times for therapeutic medications in the U.S. is a hodgepodge: A single drug, such as the common tranquilizer acepromazine, has a bevy of recommended withdrawal times listed, depending on the state in which a horse is racing. In Canada, it’s one lab and one national book of therapeutic medications with recommended withdrawal times.

“I just want to know what is legal and what is illegal, and what are the withdrawal times,” Pletcher said. “I think if you have very concrete guidelines – this is what you can do, this is what you can’t do, and anything outside of this you’re going to test positive – then you would see a significant decrease in positive tests.”

“As long as it’s uniform,” trainer Al Stall said. “This game would be a lot simpler if we had uniform medication rules.”

Stall, whose father used to be chairman of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, trains Blame, a leading candidate for Horse of the Year in 2010. Stall also ran afoul of drug laws just last year, when Bear Now was disqualified from a second-place finish in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Before she was shipped from New Orleans to Arkansas, 51 hours before her race, Bear Now was treated with robaxin, a commonly used muscle relaxant categorized by the ARCI as a Class 4 drug. Before the drug was administered, Stall said he checked with a longtime Oaklawn Park vet about the local Robaxin withdrawal time.

“He said he was giving two other stakes horse the same thing that very moment,” Stall said. “Neither one of them tested positive.”

When Stall mentioned the level of robaxin detected in Bear Now to Kentucky racing officials, they told him no action would even have been taken there for such a small amount of the drug.

“It’s a universal desire to have a national regulatory scheme so there aren’t different rules in different jurisdictions,” said Dr. Scollay. “It’s tough on horsemen, horses, vets, and presents concerns for the wagering public. Every aspect of the industry is working toward that.”
One aspect in particular is engaged in heavy lifting – the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The RMTC had its genesis about 10 years ago. A board of directors comprising 25 racing-industry stakeholders governs the organization, based in Lexington, Ky., and headed by Dr. Scot Waterman.

“Zero tolerance is my least-favorite term in racing,” Waterman said. “I guess it’s got a buzz to it. I’ve got a power-point slide on the myth of zero tolerance.”

There is, of course, a way around the low-level therapeutic positives being generated by high-powered drug-testing, and that is permitted threshold levels. A threshold is a cut-off point, like a speed limit. Stay below the permissible threshold, and even if a positive test gets generated, a horseman can be warned and informed, not punished.

The RMTC is establishing threshold levels for commonly used therapeutic drugs. First, the group funds and administers scientific studies. After analysis, the RMTC can approve a threshold level, at which point a recommendation is passed onto the ARCI. If the ARCI also approves it, the threshold is sent out in the form of a model rule to the 37 states that follow ARCI guidelines. Note the term, “model rule.” Neither the ARCI nor any other national organization has the power to enforce drug standards: They can only establish guidelines and hope that the various state regulatory agencies follow them.

Today, just a handful of threshold levels for common therapeutic medications have been included in ARCI model rules, Waterman said. They include a threshold for caffeine in blood tests and for phenylbutazone (bute), flunixin (banamine), and ketoprofen in urine tests. But thresholds for 17 more drugs are in process at the RMTC. The process of establishing thresholds for the 17 drugs under review will cost nearly $1 million, according to Waterman. The RMTC is funded by the industry groups that make up its board of directors, and after holding steady in 2009, the RMTC’s 2010 budget “saw a slight decrease,” Waterman said.

Global cooperation, however, could help reduce the future cost of doing the science that can strengthen medication policy.

“The neat thing for us is we’ve been able to make some nice connections with our European counterparts,” Waterman said. “It looks like we’re going to start sharing information.”

What might be more difficult to obtain is public support. Both the general public and a great number of racing fans continue to vociferously question the role of drugs – therapeutic or otherwise – in Thoroughbred racing.

“What in God’s name has happened to the sport of kings?” wrote a commenter on an article detailing the Canterbury drug positives on the Thoroughbred Times website. “It has turned to the sport of narcotics.”

The Internet is awash with such comments. And it is also true that racing is awash in therapeutic medications.

“There definitely is a culture of medication in this country,” Waterman said. “There’s no question about it. We lose on that comparison. That’s the way it is. This has been 30 years in the making.”

“The global wind of change is for no drugs in sport, and horse racing is part of that,” said Morris, the English scientist and racing official.

“Hay, oats, and water” – that’s the classic phrase harkening back to a lost era when trainers trained and horses raced. Like so many glib phrases, it skirts the surface of reality.

“There’s a great quote: “Hay, oats, and water – never has been, never will be,’ ” Arthur said. “Modern medicine has gone overboard in some areas, for sure. We have to strike a balance.”

“Hay, oats, water? Where is hay, oats, and water?” Pletcher said. “Is it 24 hours out? Forty-eight hours out? Seventy-two hours out? Six months out? What is it? It’s foolish to think that horses are not going to have problems. We’re going to have to treat those in some way. Again – where’s the guideline? If hay, oats, and water means nothing can be given seven days out, then let everybody know that. Fourteen days out, whatever you want it to be. I don’t think it’s very practical. I think it’s in the horse’s best interest not to do that, but if they want to do it, everyone will adhere as long as they know where it is.”

Right now, few seem to know while many are being caught up in the chaos. And that is a situation for which there should be zero tolerance.