By: Matt Hegarty
LEXINGTON, Ky. – In his lab at the University of California-Davis, Dr. Scott Stanley sorts through immense stores of data obtained from an analysis of blood samples collected from horses over the past year.
The data, he hopes, will one day give the racing industry a new way to combat illegal doping by giving racing labs the ability to compare markers in a racehorse’s blood or urine sample to the baseline data he is now collecting. Any markers that deviate substantially from the baseline could be a telltale signal that a horse has been doped.
“There is no question in my mind that this is the future,” Stanley, one of the most prominent researchers in the racing industry, said in a recent interview. “Based on our results, I am absolutely confident that we can use this technology to better regulate the use of illegal medications.”
Stanley is talking about a biological passport. The concept is not new, and the science and techniques behind the method have all been validated. Several human sports, such as cycling and track and field, have already implemented biological passports as part of their anti-doping programs, citing the need to fight against the illegal use of anabolic steroids, blood-doping drugs such as erythropoietin, and the cutting-edge gene-doping techniques that are widely expected to emerge in the future.
While anti-doping regulators agree that a biological passport for horses holds significant promise for the racing industry’s own efforts to deter and detect illegal drug use, the implementation of any program using equine biological passports is years away, according to researchers and racing officials.
In addition, in order to be successfully implemented, the racing industry would need to restructure itself in significant ways if it is to address the myriad legal and financial challenges that an equine biological program would present, tempering the enthusiasm for the technology.
“From a 60,000-foot standpoint, it sounds like a great idea,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “But there are lots and lots of questions that need to be answered.”
Looking for patterns
Broadly, programs using biological passports do not search for specific drugs. Instead, they seek to identify markers in blood and urine samples showing physiological effects that could only be attributable to doping, such as an elevated ratio of testosterone/epitestosterone or red-blood-cell counts that reach well beyond the levels that athletes could expect to achieve on their own.
In contrast, conventional drug-testing methods seek to identify a specific illegal substance, a strategy that has several well-established shortcomings, such as an inability to detect drugs that have not yet been identified by researchers (an exception is total-carbon-dioxide testing, which considers a high TCO2 level as evidence that a horse has been administered an illegal substance).
Those deficiencies are expected to become more consequential in the future as doping experts increasingly exploit novel substances designed to evade detection and improve a horse’s physiological abilities over the long term, rather than on the day of a performance.
“With conventional drug testing, we have to know what we’re looking for, and it has to be the same thing we have seen before,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. “Once that drug is slightly changed, we’ve lost our ability to detect it. With a biological passport, you are not looking for a drug, you are looking for an array of effects, and those effects tell you that something is there.”
Stanley’s research, which is being funded by the California Horse Racing Board and The Jockey Club, is attempting to lay the groundwork for the equine biological passport by analyzing samples collected through the CHRB’s out-of-competition testing program and subjecting the samples to analyses designed to form a profile of a “normal horse.” Currently, Stanley and his research assistant have analyzed “hundreds” of samples taken from approximately 80 horses, he said.
However, defining “normal” is enormously complex. As is the case for human athletes, biological markers among horses can show wide differences due to sex, age, physical condition, training regimens, genetics, and environmental factors such as altitude. So, while it’s critical to first collect the data that provide broad outlines of the normal parameters for horses, it’s also critical to collect regular samples from horses over their entire careers so that individual results from one sampling and analysis can be compared to the horse’s historical record.
“This works best if the horse is its own control,” Stanley said in reference to a horse’s baseline data.
That presents enormous problems of scale in the racing industry. While the U.S. track and field team qualifying for the Olympics may have several hundred members at any given time, the number of individual starters in U.S. races last year was 48,612 horses, according to data from The Jockey Club.
Given that officials in human sports believe it is ideal to sample each athlete four to five times a year to maintain a proper biological profile, that would mean upward of 200,000 samples and analyses each year if an equine biological passport system was fully implemented in an industry where regulators consistently beg for more funding for existing drug-control efforts.
“That is immensely expensive,” said Scollay. “Enormously expensive.”
Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the CHRB, acknowledged that the problem of scale is daunting, but he is also not certain that the racing industry’s entire racing population would need to be sampled regularly. “For all horses, it would be difficult,” Arthur said. “For elite athletes, Grade 1 winners, I don’t think it would be difficult at all.”
In Arthur’s vision of the program, top horses would be sampled regularly, as they already are, at least after races they have won or placed in. The analysis of those samples would be combined with the analysis of out-of-competition samples to form the biological passport. Any off-baseline results would be combined with follow-up investigative tools to pursue penalties, Arthur said.
That is analogous to the scope of biological passport programs in human sports, where only the top hundred or so athletes in each discipline have their data collected and analyzed on a regular basis. But those sports are not based on gambling, and it’s questionable whether horseplayers would accept one level of scrutiny for stakes races and another for the vast majority of gambling events held each day.
“From the standpoint of the bettor, there is no difference between a $1,500 claimer racing in the boondocks and a graded-stakes winner,” said Scollay.
Horse racing differs from other sports in another critical way. While most sports associations and leagues enjoy broad powers to sanction participants, racing licensees are protected by due-process rights. As a result, racing regulators face a higher burden of proof than sports leagues when pursuing penalties, and racing currently does not have regulations or precedents that specifically address the types of evidence that would be available from biological passport data.
Certainly, the racing industry has plenty of time to develop those regulations. Stanley’s project is currently addressing only one set of biological markers, those that would indicate the use of anabolic steroids. With continued funding, Stanley hopes to add “modules” that also would function as detectors of substances, like blood dopers such as EPO, or techniques designed to stimulate the production of red blood cells or manipulate a horse’s ability to produce proteins, the gene-doping drugs that are expected to dominate efforts to cheat in the future.
“I know where we need to go, I know what we need to do,” but with a small staff and limited funding, it is difficult to make speedy progress, Stanley said. He predicted that with proper funding, the foundation for an equine biological passport is still five years away, at best.
Arthur said the racing industry needs to press forward with the development of the passport, even if it is difficult to imagine the racing industry being able to afford to implement a program at the industry’s current size and in its current economic condition. He also predicted that progress might be faster than predicted because racing will be able to “piggyback” on the progress being made to implement biological passports in other sports.
“What you don’t want to do is get somewhere 10 years down the road and find out that some things have been going on for a long time and yet we don’t have a tool to detect it,” Arthur said. “This is a concern every sport has because everyone is recognizing that there are things coming down the road that we have to be prepared for.”