Standards vary by state in testing horses for drugs

Horse racing

June 09, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN REPORTER

The 20 horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby on May 5 were tested before the race for the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin, or EPO. The tests, which came back negative, were intended as a deterrent.

But as the Preakness approached, Maryland Racing Commission officials were taking a different tack. "I don't know that there would be any value" in the tests, executive director J. Michael Hopkins said.

The commission ultimately decided to take pre-race blood samples and screen for a battery of 65 drugs that included EPO. None came back positive. But Hopkins hadn't changed his opinion about the worth of the EPO test, saying the drug's effects typically last longer than the ability to detect it.

The varying philosophies of the states with Triple Crown races - Maryland, Kentucky and New York, which hosts the Belmont Stakes today - reflect the industry reality that there are broad differences across the nation. Maryland's 32 drug screens on a typical race day rank the state in the middle of the pack nationally.

The lack of state-by-state consensus results from differing resources and strategies. Some in the industry, however, acknowledge that there are drugs in the sport and would like to see uniform testing. High-profile trainers Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, who won the Preakness with Curlin, have been suspended in the past three years for positive drug tests on their horses.

A Kentucky-based organization, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, was created in 2002 to develop uniform policies for states. But "our organization at the end of the day doesn't have the ability to mandate," said Scot Waterman, the executive director. "These [racing commissions] are state-related enterprises."

New York has been a leader in equine drug sampling and devotes more staff to overseeing racing than any other state. Dan Toomey, a spokesman for the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, said he could not comment on drug testing for the Belmont because he doesn't want to tip anybody off.

In Maryland, for example, officials focus much more on harness courses than thoroughbred tracks when it comes to guarding against the use of "milkshakes," a mix of baking soda and other ingredients intended to combat horses' fatigue.

Maryland believes the concoctions are more likely to show up at harness tracks because of their longer distances than for many thoroughbred races.

Because of the higher stakes, Maryland conducted twice as many tests for the Preakness as it typically does on other race days. The first two finishers in each of that day's races were sampled as usual. But the samples were screened for 65 drugs instead of the usual 32.

Of 11 leading racing states, Maryland was sixth behind New York (55), Florida (42), Michigan (40), Indiana (36) and California (33), according to a 2006 Kentucky state audit. Kentucky (28) was eighth and Louisiana (15) was last.

Maryland was seventh in percent of positive tests at 0.44 percent. Texas topped the list at 1.84 percent.

New York, whose testing is done by Cornell University, had the lowest rate (0.09 percent).

The cost of Maryland's tests is assumed by the tracks. Maryland is the only state that does in-house testing rather than contract out. The lab costs about $1.1 million a year.

Since new drugs periodically appear and old ones resurface, Hopkins said states must be nimble enough to change their testing on the fly to catch potential cheaters.

"We have a lot of contact with the practicing vets and the horsemen," Hopkins said. "If we perceive a problem, then we'll move to make a change."

Phenylbutazone, or bute, is the most common drug abused at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, according to racing commission records. Overusing the anti-inflammatory drug can fetch fines ranging from $500 to $1,500 and lead to suspension or disqualification. The penalties depend on the level of the drug in the horse and on whether there is a history of previous offenses.

Thoroughbreds in Maryland tested positive 19 times during the past 1 1/2 years, according to commission records. Infractions included abuse of bute and hydroxyephedrine, a stimulant.

The toughest penalty was for the stimulant - a 90-day suspension for the trainer and a $2,500 fine. According to the records, the horse, Unforgettable Gal, finished second in a race at Laurel. The horse was disqualified and the purse money redistributed.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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