Drug Testing

Controversy over medication and drug testing has been around since organized equine competitions came into being. There has always been more disagreement than agreement among the various factions involved, and more contention than harmony. Drug testing is a legal part of nearly all breed and discipline competitions these days, and much of what is done in regard to drug testing in other competitions stems from the racing world.

Therefore, let's take a look at the changes that are being made in drug testing in Thoroughbred racing. Much of the change is due to the work of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC), which was formed about three years ago. The goal of the group is to establish uniform rules and regulations on medication and drug testing for all racing jurisdictions, and progress is being made, says Scot Waterman, DVM, executive director of the Consortium.

What's Happened So Far

In April of 2004, the consortium agreed in general to a model rule, and the ongoing effort now is to develop it into a working arrangement that will meet with approval from all racing jurisdictions.

Can it Be Done?

"I think so," says Waterman. "I'm optimistic. We've made more progress in a short period of time than anyone thought we could. However, it is a very broad and complicated issue. There are so many facets to it. And it takes time and money to get it implemented."

A part of the financial aspect, Waterman says, involves making certain that all racing jurisdictions have the wherewithal to implement and enforce all facets of uniform rules. Funds must be available, he says, to make sure that rules are not only adopted, but are enforced uniformly in all racing jurisdictions.

One of the key provisions of the model regulations is the 24-hour rule. This rule, based in part on research at Louisiana State University (LSU) and implemented in Louisiana, stipulates that no therapeutic medication other than the anti-bleeding medication furosomide (Salix) can be administered to a racehorse within 24 hours of competing.

Heading up the research and testing work at LSU is Steven Barker, PhD, who wears a number of hats. He is the state chemist, and he also is the director of Analytical Systems Laboratories and the Equine Medication Surveillance Laboratory at LSU. In addition, he holds the endowed Everett Besch Chair as Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Medicine.

Prior to 1987, according to Barker, Louisiana's racetrack drug testing was handled by private laboratories. It was moved to the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, he says, because of the institution's sophisticated equipment and the expertise of personnel.

"The racing industry changed drastically 10 to 12 years ago, when drug testing became much more sophisticated," Barker adds.

The speed of advancing technology brought drug testing to something of a crossroads, he explains. Sophisticated testing methods were able to detect minute quantities of more drugs; thus more "positives" were showing up. Under the old rules, he says, the detection of any drug at any level--even if it was therapeutic--"meant that somebody was cheating." But since very low levels could now be detected, a way had to be found to coordinate the levels of a detected therapeutic drug during a stated timeframe after being administered with what might be deemed acceptable and what definitely was not.

There was another matter with which to contend--all drugs aren't created equal.

Drug Categories

In 1989, Racing Commissioners International, working with staff at LSU and other institutions, approved five categories or levels for drugs detected via testing. Sanctions also were established for violations at each of the levels. The sanctions vary with the severity of the offense. (See "Drug Testing Classes" on page 79 for examples of each category of drugs.)

Category 1 and 2 drugs, for example, carry the most severe penalties. They include drugs such as potent narcotics or stimulants that are never to be used in competing horses because they are capable of enhancing a horse's performance, and at the same time can be detrimental to the horse's health. For example, the harm to a horse could result when one of these drugs deadens pain in a joint, allowing the horse to compete, but likely results in lasting damage to that joint.

Under Louisiana rules, says Barker, a trainer guilty of violating Category 1 or 2 drug rules could be given a suspension ranging from six months to 15 years, and could be fined between $1,000 and $10,000 depending on the violation. There would also be loss of purse (money won by the horse in question).

Category 3 is for therapeutic drugs that could possibly affect a horse's performance and that are not allowed within 24 hours of racing.

Categories 4 and 5 include therapeutic drugs that are considered less likely to affect a horse's performance, but also aren't allowed within 24 hours of racing.

Once it was decided that the 24-hour rule was a good one, researchers at LSU were faced with the challenge of determining whether the therapeutic medication had been administered prior to 24 hours before the race or whether it had been administered after the 24-hour deadline.

So, LSU established a threshold for each therapeutic drug. In other words, if a particular therapeutic drug was administered 24 hours prior to race time, there would only be a certain amount detectable at testing time 24 hours later. If the amount of drug in the horse was higher than the threshold for that time, it likely meant that the drug had been administered after the 24-hour deadline and a violation had occurred.

However, the 24-hour rule has no bearing on detected drugs belonging to Categories 1 and 2. They are forbidden at any level.

The number of positives has dropped dramatically since the new drug testing rules have been implemented in Louisiana, says Barker. There appear to be two reasons for that. First, sophisticated testing of both urine and blood has likely reduced the usage of drugs in Categories 1 and 2. Although there are still cheaters out there, Barker says, there likely are fewer of them because of the fear of being caught. Secondly, 80% of all drug positives turn out to be 24-hour rule negatives. What this means is that the test did indeed detect the presence of a therapeutic drug, but that it did not cross the threshold that would indicate it had been administered less than 24 hours before competition.

Only 0.25% of all tests conducted at LSU turn out to be positive, Barker says, and the percentage is much smaller for violations of Categories 1 and 2--only one one-hundredth of one percent (0.01%) of all tests.

Even when a positive test falls within the proper parameters for a legal, therapeutic drug, Barker says, the information is forwarded on to the state racing commission and is recorded. However, racing stewards are not informed and there are no sanctions against the trainer involved.

Researching Drugs

Barker is quick to point out that LSU is not the only institution where research into medication and drug testing has gone on and is still being conducted. The RMTC is helping make certain there is ongoing research at a number of institutions.

The RMTC approved a research budget of $650,000 for 2004. (The 2005 budget had not yet been determined at press time) Five projects were funded in 2003 for a total of $300,844.

The RMTC and the progress it has made did not happen by accident. It is the product of many years of effort, and often frustration. In fact, concern over drug usage at racetracks--and the compromising position the issue often created for veterinarians treating racehorses--was one of the reasons that the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) came into being 50 years ago.

Battle lines were drawn in many racing jurisdictions with racing officials often declaring that if a horse needed medication of any kind, it should not be allowed to race. Veterinarians maintained that such an approach was unrealistic and did a disservice to the horse.

Some of the racing jurisdictions, however, had at least a slight change of heart along the way and decided that a 48-hour rule should be implemented. What this meant was that legal, therapeutic drugs could be administered, but the administration had to be at least 48 hours before race day.

Again, battle lines were drawn with horse owners and veterinarians declaring that the 48-hour rule was not practical and prohibited the full employment of sound veterinary medication practices that were in the best interest of the horse.

At its 1960 annual session, the AAEP drafted a model rule that paved the way for the regulations being considered today.

The two key points in that early model rule were:

  1. Prohibition of the use of a stimulant, depressant, or local anesthetic in a manner that might affect the racing performance of a horse. (Stimulants and depressants are defined as medications that stimulate or depress the circulatory, respiratory, or central nervous systems.) Prohibition of the use of any drug, regardless of how harmless or innocuous it might be, which by its very nature might "mask" or "screen" the presence of the aforementioned prohibited drugs.
  2. Full use of modern therapeutic measures for the improvement and protection of the health of a horse, with the understanding that no such medication will be used on the day of the race except by express permission of proper authorities.

The intensity of the drug controversy was demonstrated by action taken against 1960 AAEP president Jordan Woodcock, DVM. Woodcock had served as New York State Veterinarian for the New York Racing Commission for 17 years. When he took to the road to champion the AAEP position, the New York Racing Commission, which opposed the AAEP stance, removed him as state veterinarian.

Also underlying the differences on the drug issue between racing jurisdictions and veterinarians and horsemen was the "Butazolidin War" in 1961. The relatively new analgesic phenylbutazone (Bute) had been in widespread use on racetracks for five or six years. However, once a test was established to detect Bute in the urine, some racing commissions banned its use.

This caused some serious controversy. For example, in Florida, the racing commission banned the usage of phenylbutazone, and Florida trainers and owners threatened to boycott all races unless the ban was lifted.

M.B. Teigland, DVM, of Florida, was president of AAEP that year. Part of the problem, he recalls, was that racing jurisdictions that banned phenylbutazone based their position on research that had been conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. The research involved administering massive dosages of Bute--up to 20 grams daily--to test horses. The test horses developed ulcers and had other negative reactions.

To many racing jurisdictions, this meant that Bute was unsafe. Veterinarians and researchers finally convinced racing officials that Bute, when administered in a daily dose of 2 grams, was therapeutic and did not harm the horse. Eventually, phenylbutazone (administered at a prescribed level) became a permitted therapeutic drug in racing jurisdictions across the country.

Ultimately, even the general public became involved in the medication issue. In the late 1970s, humane groups opposed to racing seized on the medication issue and urged Congress to pass legislation that would establish a national medication control program. That movement eventually was defeated and racing jurisdictions and the veterinary community continued with efforts to arrive at an agreement.

In 2000, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Task Force on Racing Integrity and Drug Testing released the initial results of its Supertest project at The Jockey Club Roundtable.

"The report," according to the RMTC website, "was a culmination of three years of research into the state of post-race testing in the United States, including results from over 1,000 cleared split samples that were put through an additional rigorous battery of tests. The report served to highlight some of the challenges the industry faced in order to improve the post-race detection of prohibited substances."

Then in late 2001, the AAEP organized a Medication Summit that was held in conjunction with the University of Arizona Racing Symposium. Attending were representatives from 23 organizations involved with racing. The group held a closed-door meeting in an effort to determine potential consensus points on the basic elements involved in establishing national uniform medication and drug testing policies for racehorses.

Following that meeting was the organization of the RMTC. Three other organizations have been added, bringing the total number involved to 26.

"It was gratifying," said Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, BSc, FRCVS, Dr.medvet (hc), Dipl. ACVS, Director of Colorado State University's Gail Holmes Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, and AAEP president in 2001. "To have all segments together at Arizona and for us (AAEP) to hand over our effort from the last two years working toward a national uniform medication policy...The climate with racing veterinarians at that time spanned from total support of our position (no race day medication except Salix) to extreme disagreement and anger from some colleagues--a minority--in states that enjoyed more liberal medication policies. The extreme end wanted anything on race day and the more moderate disagreement came from veterinarians who felt that other adjunctive bleeder medications were appropriate on race day."

It has been a long, difficult trek through many years, but success in establishing uniform racing medication rules seems to be looming tantalizingly on the near horizon.



Stimulant and depressant drugs; these drugs have the highest potential to affect performance. All Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Schedule I agents are included in Class 1, as well as many DEA Schedule II agents.

Examples--Opiates, opium derivatives, synthetic opioids and psychoactive drugs, amphetamines, and amphetamine-like drugs such as apomorphine, nikethamide, mazindol, pemoline, and pentylenetetrazol.


Drugs that have a high potential to affect performance, but less of a potential than Class 1.

Examples--Psychotropic drugs, certain nervous system and cardiovascular system stimulants, depressants, injectable local anesthetics, and neuromuscular blocking agents.


Drugs that have less potential to affect performance in horses than Class 2.

Examples--Bronchodilators and other drugs with primary effects on the autonomic nervous system, procaine, antihistamines with sedative properties, and the high-ceiling diruretics (which increase urine output).


Drugs that are therapeutic medications with less potential to affect performance in horses than Class 3.

Examples--Less potent diuretics, anabolic steroids, corticosteroids, antihistamines and skeletal muscle relaxants without prominent central nervous system effects, expectorants and mucolytics, hemostaticcs, cardiac glycosides and anti-arrhythmics, topical anesthetics, antidiarrheals and mild analgesics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (at concentrations greater than established limits).


Drugs that are therapeutic medications for which concentration limits have been established by the racing jurisdictions.

Examples--Dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), anti-ulcer drugs, certain anti-allergy drugs, anticoagulant drugs, and agents that only have very localized actions.

From the Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances, Association of Racing Commissioners International, Inc.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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