By: Jay Hovdey
Let’s concede for a moment that some people will cheat to win. I know, it’s hard to swallow. But human nature, being driven by human beings, sometimes veers toward the dark side, and it is up to those who prefer to play the game on the square to make cheating a no-win option.
To that end, it was announced last week by the California Horse Racing Board that the Ken Maddy Laboratory at UC-Davis will be going full speed ahead in developing the same kind of athletic biological passport (ABP) being applied to participants in such international sports as cycling, track and field, and World Cup soccer.
“In order to monitor the new generation of doping agents, we’re going to have to develop biological passports,” said Rick Arthur, CHRB equine medical director. “Remember, it’s always a cat-and-mouse game. Whenever we plug up one problem, they start looking for a new and better treatment.”
A biological passport would record the normal blood profile of every horse in competition. Pre-race and out-of-competition testing would require that the horse maintains his normal profile.
Arthur cites the illegal use of anabolic steroids and blood-doping agents as the two primary targets of the biological-passport project. The first study module for the Maddy lab would be an ABP that would indicate abnormalities in the natural biosynthesis of equine testosterone.
“We know the effects anabolic steroids have on the muscles last well beyond the presence of the drug and because of that are not detectable with our normal testing,” Arthur said. “We think we can measure abnormalities in the steps along the way that indicate the animal has been doped with an anabolic agent.”
The idea of an equine biological passport is gaining supporters. Jonathan Allen, a practicing vet based in south Florida, became a believer after a reputable lab tested the blood of two groups of horses in his care. One of the sample groups had recently arrived from another racing region.
“We know things like cobalt and EPO are used to enhance oxygen delivery to muscles,” Allen said. “But the traditional tests for blood doping are expensive and unreliable.”
Allen is an amateur club cyclist who does not need to look far to see the likely effects of blood enhancement.
“There are probably guys I cycle with that are going all the time to these wellness clinics and are doing HGH, testosterone,” Allen said. “I’m from Boca Raton, the land of ever young. My neighbor is 72, pumping iron, wearing testosterone patches – all under a doctor’s prescription.”
The biological passports of human athletes contain a blood measure that accounts for the normal distribution and width (RDW) of red blood cells. A simple, pre-race blood test for racehorses would need to conform closely to the information established in their personal passport. A marginally abnormal reading would require a follow-up test, while dramatic abnormalities would be cause for the horse to be scratched.
“Dr. Raquel Walton, the equine pathologist, has written that there are three main reasons for RDWs to be abnormal in horses,” Allen said. “The first would be some kind of hemolytic anemia, where your horse is sick and not producing a sufficient amount of red blood cells. The second would be a massive blood loss. And the third one would be if the horse was given EPO or another substance that stimulates red blood cells above and beyond the normal level.”
It stands to reason that an anemic horse or a horse who has just suffered a large blood loss would not be doing much training, let alone be entered to race.
“This is not looking for the smoking gun,” Allen said. “It’s looking for the crime scene. There is no ‘positive’ called, no suspensions or fines, and no cause for a trainer to lawyer up. It is a biological pre-race examination, just as horses are required to pass a pre-race physical examination and could be scratched for a suspicious tendon.”
No one supporting the biological-passport concept is suggesting that it will replace conventional small-molecule drug testing since analgesics and stimulants do not alter RDW benchmarks. The best comparison, according to Arthur, is the pre-race testing instituted in California and other jurisdictions several years ago for total carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Levels above a certain threshold were indicative of a practice known as milkshaking.
“We now have about 300,000 TCO2 levels in our database,” Arthur said. “We can follow a horse’s levels from start to start, from barn to barn. You just have to let people know you’re paying attention.”
And when, Arthur was asked, was the last high TCO2 called in California?
“We haven’t had one in two years,” he replied.
With more persuasive pressure from veterinarians like Arthur and Allen, in both public and private sectors, the equine biological passport will become a reality, and horse racing will join the 21st century when it comes to policing its players. Hopefully, California will be the first of many racing jurisdictions to make such a commitment.
“It may be ambitious, but we’ve set a goal to be able to have a fairly good data test for this a year from now,” Arthur said, referring to the biological passport for anabolic steroids. “This is important, and I’m excited about the prospects. I think most people realize that if we can’t provide real integrity for horse racing – not just the perception – then nothing works.”