By: Frank Angst

An April 5 discussion on equine drug testing standards and practices painted a picture of underfunded industry groups and labs battling ever-growing threats.

Panelists outlined those challenges at the Association of Racing Commissioners International conference on equine welfare and racing integrity in Hot Springs, Ark.

Dr. Richard Sams, lab director for LGC Science in Lexington, outlined an emerging industry on the internet and ‘darknet’ where anyone with a credit card and mailing address can purchase varying substances that try to mimic controlled substances or illicit drugs. The substances are slightly altered at the molecular level to vary from corresponding legal or illegal drugs, which puts them in the unregulated category of “research chemicals.”

Sams said the sole purpose of altering the substances is to avoid regulatory scrutiny. Sams said some of the substances that have been found in Thoroughbreds or Standardbreds in recent years include dermorphin, letrozole, nomifensine, JWH-250, mitragynine and AH-7921. Any of these substances could have been purchased from vendors on online sites.

Sams said these types of substances—which can disappear from a horse’s system relatively quickly—are not especially difficult to detect, as long as labs know what they’re looking for, including metabolites.

“If we don’t know to look for it, we won’t know how to find it,” Sams said.

Some of the substances sold as “research chemicals” include those that increase production of male hormones, as well as peptides and proteins that could have effects similar to anabolic steroids. Sams said there is concern that baseball players have been using peptides in recent years.

While those threats proliferate, Racing Medication and Testing Consortium executive director Dionne Benson said her organization struggles to maintain funding. Many times, she said, each individual substance needs its own study, because one piece of research doesn’t transfer to another substance.

Petra Hartmann of Drug Testing Services for Industrial Laboratories said funding from states is often limited to everyday testing, and money is not available to study emerging threats.

“If we want to free up money for emerging threats, we have to reduce other costs,” Hartmann said.

As a way of getting more value from industry labs, Hartmann called for better communication between horsemen, investigators, vets, executive directors and chemists.

“We don’t necessarily have a constant stream of information for us,” Hartmann said. “It would be good to streamline, because there’s a lot of good information out there.”