Survey: Racehorse Drug Testing System has Serious Flaws

Survey: Racehorse Drug Testing System has Serious Flaws

In terms of regular drug tests, the United States is spending about the same in real terms as we spent 20 years ago.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Research commissioned by The Jockey Club shows that, though the Thoroughbred industry has made progress in the area of uniform medication and testing standards, a state-by-state approach is at best problematic.

The Jockey Club Oct. 14 held a media briefing via Skype in Lexington and New York City. On hand were representatives of McKinsey and Co., which touched on the issue of medication uniformity during the Jockey Club Round Table Conference in August.

"We're deeply interested in reform on various pillars of the regulatory process," said Jim Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club. "Testing is a real cornerstone of any regulatory process. We've got a real mixed bag. It may be that the status quo needs to be rethought."

The research, derived from a survey of 18 horse racing jurisdictions and interaction with up to 30, dealt with the processes and financial expenditure regarding test sample collection, actual drug testing procedures, and research into emerging drugs or other substances.

"A high degree of variance exists," said Dan Singer, the senior partner and leader with McKinsey who at the Round Table outlined the issue in basic terms.

The survey data shows the racing industry in total spends about $44 million a year on drug testing and related practices, $23 million of it on Thoroughbred races. In regard to out-of-competition testing, the United States racing industry devotes 1% of the total compared with Victoria, Australia (21%); Hong Kong (11%); and France (10%).

In terms of regular drug tests, Singer said the United States "is spending about the same in real terms as we spent 20 years ago."

The survey showed that even states that have completely embraced the National Uniform Medication Program really aren't uniform because of laboratory procurement contracts. Regulatory agencies might have things such as drug-testing threshold levels on the books, but that's no guarantee the labs are even testing for specific substances.

"In the end, the quality of lab work depends on how much a state wants to pay for testing services," Singer said.

And the cost varies greatly. The survey revealed that the cost per test can range from $55 to $230, and there are issues with the quality of testing because jurisdictions in lab contracts don't demand certain protocol be followed.

"On the surface it has been very positive," Gagliano said of the National Uniform Medication Program, "but when you look at the facts, we're a long way from uniformity and good regulation."

The equine drug-testing system clearly is in disarray. There are testing backlogs at labs, labs that "pool" samples to meet expenditures in procurement contracts, and scientists who often are at odds with one another. In addition, there is no "double-blind" proficiency, the McKinsey survey indicates; labs often know by the packaging of samples that they are for proficiency purposes, not actual tests.

In a related matter, research isn't uniform. The United States Trotting Association, which defected from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) last fall, paid for its own research into use of cobalt, a naturally occurring element that can have blood-doping effects if administered. The researchers recommended a threshold level of 70 parts per billion, about three times what is believed to be the standard, but the RMTC can't get the data that supported the recommendation.

The Jockey Club in August said it would study advocating for change on the federal level. On Oct. 14 Gagliano said it will happen.

"To us, this is unacceptable," he said of the lack of uniformity among states. "We will absolutely engage with federal authorities. It won't be an easy effort but that's where we're headed. I personally don't think that by relying on state reform, we will get there."

Gagliano again said The Jockey Club has had regular talks with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which he said is "willing to assist the racing industry."

The McKinsey study issued several recommendations, including centralized tracking of racehorses for out-of-competition testing purposes; reciprocity between regulatory agencies; uniform levels of testing and uniform testing requests for proposal; double-blind proficiency at labs; uniform testing threshold levels; and monetary investment in targeted research.

About the Author

Tom LaMarra

Tom LaMarra, a native of New Jersey and graduate of Rutgers University, has been news editor at The Blood-Horse since 1998. After graduation he worked at newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an editor and reporter with a focus on municipal government and politics. He also worked at Daily Racing Form and Thoroughbred Times before joining The Blood-Horse. LaMarra, who has lived in Lexington since 1994, has won various writing awards and was recognized with the Old Hilltop Award for outstanding coverage of the horse racing industry. He likes to spend some of his spare time handicapping races.

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