Anabolic Steroid Testing in a Racing Environment


Current public consensus on the subject of steroid use in horses is different from that of 20-30 years ago. At the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif., Keith Soring, DVM, discussed testing for anabolic steroids. Now regulators, chemists, veterinarians, breeders, and owners recognize that people think differently about animals, and all equestrian disciplines must confront these welfare concerns.

Soring explained that anabolic steroids increase protein synthesis and accelerate muscle development. While steroid enhancement of performance is debatable, the public has the perception that it might affect performance in horses. In evidence-based analysis on purported effects of anabolic steroids, there are no documented studies that correspond to anecdotal support. These drugs have been used to stimulate appetite, manage postoperative patients, treat chronic debilitation or trauma, improve weight gain and stamina, and promote growth, yet there is no evidence in the literature that these effects are achieved in the equine species.

Public pressure has made testing for anabolic steroids more relevant, particularly after the recent and notable tragic accidents that have occurred at racetracks. Issues of integrity and welfare have prompted a more serious approach to testing, as have concerns regarding horse safety. There has been some unpublished data that indicates anabolic steroids could lead to increased rates of injury; currently about one catastrophic injury is logged per 1,000 horses at the track. Nonetheless, Soring reported that of all first and second place racehorses sampled 1991-2007 at an Iowa track, only 0.27% tested positive for anabolic steroids, amounting to not quite five horses per year. Most of these positive tests resulted in a $300 fine against the trainer.

Now more serious financial penalties and racing suspensions have been implemented for multiple infractions of positive tests for anabolic steroids. In addition, not only is the trainer penalized, but so is the owner. Soring stated that the public will not put up with horses not being tested, nor will The Jockey Club. He explained that the future of steroid testing might rely on blood rather than urine, as blood samples require less sample manipulation and are more sensitive, so they can give a better picture of drug residues for a longer time frame. There is always a concern that such laboratory sensitivity and routine screening for the four major anabolic steroids might stimulate development of designer steroids that could elude testing.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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