By: Tom LaMarra
Developments over the last 10 years or so have proven that uniformity in the regulation of horse racing goes well beyond published withdrawal times and testing threshold levels for accepted therapeutic substances. The actual testing of samples—admittedly a mind-numbing topic that doesn’t get a lot of play until there is a problem—is equally as important to horsemen.
In late 2008, when the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium Drug Testing Initiatives Task Force was launched, five of 18 laboratories that tested samples for racing in the United States were “ISO 17025 accredited,” which basically means a lab is competent in testing. By 2017, 13 of the 14 remaining labs had achieved that designation.
In conjunction with that program, the RMTC began its own lab accreditation process, and as of February nine of the 11 labs that test samples for Thoroughbred racing in 32 jurisdictions had received accreditation. The University of Florida Racing Laboratory has achieved interim accreditation; only the Louisiana State University Analytical Systems Laboratory has not applied.
The RMTC adopted the lab accreditation program in 2009 based on a presentation the previous year by Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Chairman Alan Foreman during The Jockey Club Round Table conference. Foreman addressed the need for an overhaul of drug testing in the U.S. as well as uniform withdrawal time guidelines for therapeutic substances based on historical research.
“We can no longer get by with just publishing each state’s recommendations, which are not uniform,” Foreman said at the time. “We must eliminate positive tests because they give us a black eye, no matter that they demonstrate our deterrence system is at work.”
Much has changed since 2009. No program that entails such a large volume of testing and substances will ever be perfect, but the guidelines for horsemen in regard to management of therapeutic medications have never been clearer than they are today.
Lab accreditation goes hand-in-hand with the Controlled Therapeutic Substances List, a list of about 30 permitted substances as well as their withdrawal and testing threshold levels that the RMTC has said is a “living document” to accommodate scientific developments. Both are among the four components of the National Uniform Medication Program; the goal is for every lab to conduct testing for the substances in the same fashion.
That hasn’t always been the case, and such variation can lead to a positive being called in one jurisdiction and not another for the same therapeutic substance. That’s why adoption of the National Uniform Medication Program is critical, and the RMTC, as part of its lab accreditation process, does a lot of work behind the scenes to get testing standards in sync throughout the racing industry.
Dr. Dionne Benson, Executive Director of the RMTC, acknowledged there have been concerns about uniform testing from state to state and how it can impact the majority of horsemen who follow the rules. The RMTC has a quality assurance program whereby labs are sent a set of samples and must quantify one medication on the CTSL within a certain range to pass.
Another RMTC program entails taking samples from horses sponsored by the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Committee and shipping to them tracks as part of the regular samples taken during racing. The RMTC can then get detailed information on how a certain lab is performing on any given day.
The RMTC uses both single-blind and double-blind tests in its quality assurance program.
“We’ve identified an issue and we’re able to deal with it head-on,” Benson said. “If we find that (at a specific) time a lab can’t find a drug in a sample, it tells us we need to improve testing at that laboratory. The only way to make sure the rubber meets the road is to test double blind.
“We’re hearing things about labs and how they are testing that we never would have heard before. As we continue to do this, it will bring about more harmony (in testing). There has been a lot more buy-in and cohesiveness by labs that want to work together in finding solutions and having equivalent abilities.”
The CTSL was designed to allow for use of accepted therapeutic medications considered important to the health and welfare of the horse, but not on race day with the exception of Lasix. Use of any substance not on the list can be problematic for horsemen because they don’t have published threshold levels for testing.
Testing for said substances—Naproxen, for example—varies by lab under agreements with each racing regulatory agency, Benson said. The RMTC in such cases has attempted to establish screening limits—they are not published—similar to the methodology used in European countries, and recommends that laboratories consult with state regulators and the RMTC when such situations arise. More work will be done in this area.
“This has been an accomplishment of the RMTC Scientific Advisory Committee,” Benson said. “That’s how we can get consistency outside of the CTSL.”
The RMTC’s work was instrumental in a decision by the West Virginia Racing Commission in 2017 to rescind penalties that stemmed from a cluster of Naproxen positives. The WVRC determined that labs that tested the samples didn’t employ the same screening level for the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
The accreditation process coupled with quality assurance programs has also led to more targeted testing, Benson said. Budgets differ among racing regulatory agencies, so labs are testing fewer samples but testing them more aggressively, she said.
In addition, regulatory agencies will shake up protocol regarding which horses are tested day to day, and labs will retain samples for a period of time for future testing.
“Racing commissions are working to keep up the deterrent factor while spending less money,” Benson said. “Having been on the ground in Kentucky, they’re not always just testing the first- and second-place horse. The idea is that no horse is safe from being called to the test barn, which is as it should be. It’s the greatest deterrent.”
There is another goal for the RMTC: That uniformity and efficiency in laboratory testing standards for permitted substances along with development of sound screening limits for medications not on the CTSL not only reduces questionable positives and their resulting rulings but allows regulators and labs to devote more time and money to identifying emerging substances and developing tests for them.
“It’s important to know that labs are continually on an improvement process,” Benson said. “You can’t just wave a wand and fix it. As we get more information and do more testing, labs will continue to improve, and this effort largely has been supported by the RMTC.”