By: T. D. Thornton

Advocates for some form of an “equine biological passport” have maintained in recent years that it’s the lack of funding–and not a lack of technological expertise–that is keeping drug policing based on Thoroughbred biomarker analysis from becoming a reality in United States racing.

Now, thanks to a two-year, $50,000-per-year grant from The Jockey Club and a portion of $1.2 million raised last year by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), the Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, is beginning its first phase of developing methods to combat anabolic steroid abuse and gene doping by tracking biological changes in horses over time and comparing them to each Thoroughbred’s unique set of biomarkers.

Such an equine “passport” (don’t think of it as a travel document) is based on the model for human athletes introduced by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2009. Repeated blood samples are the backbone of biological passports, because a history of an individual’s biomarkers can show, among other things, a body’s indirect reactions to performance enhancers, even long after the performance-enhancers themselves have been cleared from the body. So in horse racing, a passport could be used prior to competition to screen for cheaters as an alternative to the current U.S. norm of after-the-race blood and urine testing for banned substances.

“This parallels efforts that are being made in human sports,” CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker explained at the Aug. 25 CHRB meeting. “The lab essentially creates a biological record of an individual racehorse, and then looks for changes outside of the normal values. The changes can involve a number of biological processes, including changes in proteins, genes, and small molecules. Monitoring these biomarkers could signal that a doping agent had been administered to the athlete.”

Now that funding has been secured to start such a project–the CHRB is calling its model the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP)–the next step in the process involves patience. Just establishing an infrastructure for the ABP that will be workable at a racing-commission level will take several years, according to Dr. Benjamin Moeller, who was appointed in June to oversee the development of the passport program at the Maddy Lab.

“There are short-term goals and there are long-term goals,” said Moeller, an expert in biomarkers with a PhD focused on equine anabolic steroids. “The short-term goal is to really focus on anabolic steroids. That’s what we have the most information on; our methods are the most developed, our expertise is the most developed…I would say initially, you’re talking a couple years from now

[before an ABP could be used for prosecuting or penalizing cheaters].”

But even before the program is fully up and running, he added, “that doesn’t mean you can’t use [passport] information to help clue in for other types of investigations. What it might let us do is clue in and say, ‘This is an animal or a trainer [whose passport values] are way out of range.”

Moeller said passport-related drug detection can be thought of as moving from a “population-based approach” toward an “individual-based approach.”

“Population-based approaches say everyone has to fit within a range,” Moeller explained. “Human anti-doping used this method for quite awhile. But really what they’ve found is that utilizing an individual approach is far more effective; using each individual as their own reference [point]. So now, an individual approach is preferable. However, in the absence of an individual approach, knowing that something is 10 times out of normal range [for the entire population] is still effective.”

The CHRB’s current method of TCO2 testing, Moeller said, is an example of how regulators already utilize an individual approach to ferret out abnormalities.

“TCO2 testing is not particularly complicated to do, and there aren’t a lot of pathways, substrates, and metabolites that we’re trying to tease out,” Moeller said. “So it’s a very direct measurement. We have an idea of how we want to go forward [with passports], and that’s a great way of doing it.

“I would hope five years from now we could say that the use of the biological passport, at least as to how it’s focused on anabolic steroids, has reduced both the perception of abuse and the actual use of anabolic agents, as well as give us a much better understanding of equine physiology and normal endocrinology in a performance animal.”

At some yet-to-be-determined point in the future, the CHRB will require horses racing within its jurisdiction to have a state-approved ABP in order to compete. But even before passports get used as an actual drug enforcement tool, Moeller said the industry will reap the benefits of having them perceived as a deterrent.

“That’s part of it–a deterrent,” Moeller said. “If you administer a drug to an animal, it might be cleared out of the system in hours. But the effects, or a biomarker from those effects, might be observable days, weeks, months later. In my previous biomarker work, I’ve looked at biomarkers that have lasted months even though the parent compound that the animal was exposed to was eliminated from the body within minutes. But we could still identify that this animal was exposed to it, and at what doses.”

Beyond policing drug cheats, passports could have value as a horse-health monitoring tool. Although it’s too early to say if the ABPs will be used in this fashion in California, presumably, owners and trainers could use the data contained within them to help screen their own horses for disease or injury.

“Part of that will have to depend on how the program advances,” Moeller said. “I could definitely see a role for that, without a doubt. It could potentially be very helpful for an individual to know how their animal is progressing and to know what changes are happening. Part of that we have to weigh against the needs of the racing jurisdiction and what [the CHRB’s] thoughts are on it. We’ll have to just wait and see how that plays out. That does require time and research. And, unfortunately, it requires money as well.”

Although the CHRB is currently at the forefront of equine biomarker research at the state level, the long-term success of the program will hinge on whether or not other major racing regulatory bodies buy into the concept.

“Eventually, it will have to be more than just a California approach,” said Moeller. “We’re going to have to work with jurisdictions across the country, and eventually across the world, to get a better handle on what’s going on endogenously inside a performance horse who’s fit. How is their physiology, and does it change with time, with age, with competition? And then, how does it change with the administration of a drug?”