The Change Ahead: What Hair Testing Of Thoroughbreds In Texas Tells Us About Out-Of-Competition Tests - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

The Change Ahead: What Hair Testing Of Thoroughbreds In Texas Tells Us About Out-Of-Competition Tests

 On July 1, the first round of new regulations are scheduled to go into effect as a result of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA). HISA will seek to bring about the uniformity in medication, testing, and safety regulation and enforcement which so many in the racing industry have asked for in recent decades.

As the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority fights multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the new organization, it remains to be seen when, whether, and how it will implement new rules. It has been made clear by those working for the Authority so far that it will not be a night-to-day change between June 30 and July 1, 2022, especially since the Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023. There will also be a phase-in process for its Racetrack Safety Program, which in many ways will seek to codify best practices suggested by the NTRA's Safety and Integrity Alliance and the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

Assuming the Authority is able to bring about this change, there are a few jurisdictions and racetracks that will be in for a rude awakening. In this series, we take a look at where American racing stands now with key parts of the new regulations. What do we know about the history behind new rules? How have some states fared after implementing safety rules voluntarily? What has stopped some jurisdictions from adopting these changes on their own?  

We hope this pre-HISA snapshot can inform fans and those in the racing industry about the changes ahead.

Trainer Karl Broberg says that when he was notified of a clenbuterol positive on a hair test from a Thoroughbred racing in Texas, he didn't stay awake at night, fearing the end of his career.

Clenbuterol is banned completely in Texas, a move the state's racing commission took in 2018 prompted in part by the state's sizable Quarter Horse population. A positive test can carry a one-year suspension.

“From the time I got the positive, I laughed,” Broberg said. “I did everything right, according to their own rules. I was never fretting it. I did not lose any sleep over it the entire time, because it was absolutely insane how they rolled it out. Finally, cooler heads prevailed and they looked at it the way they need to.”

Clenbuterol and albuterol have become targets of out-of-competition testing by racing commissions in recent years as regulators have realized that the bronchodilators can be used for purposes other than treating breathing issues. Beta-2 agonists like clenbuterol and albuterol can decrease body fat and increase muscle mass with repeated administration, and are also believed to help convert slow twitch muscle fibers to fast twitch.

The move to restrict use of the drugs on the backstretch has not been without controversy. Racehorses are well known for struggling with respiratory health issues, partly because they are kept in environments with high amounts of particulate matter in the air from dust, straw, and hay, and because the design of many racetrack stables does not allow for good ventilation. There's also evidence that the drugs are being used very broadly, raising concerns they're being treated like anabolic steroids. In Kentucky, commission officials say they've seen instances of veterinarians prescribing the drug to every horse in the barn.

The American Quarter Horse Association announced a zero-tolerance policy for clenbuterol in 2014, and in 2019 Oklahoma began requiring a negative hair test for Quarter Horses as a condition of entry. Los Alamitos instituted a house rule in late 2014 banning clenbuterol and albuterol in racing Quarter Horses, which was enforced via hair testing.

Read more about hair testing in this primer from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.

An absolute ban on clenbuterol is still comparatively new in Thoroughbred racing though, and Broberg's positive came in a Thoroughbred. In that case, he said the drug was appropriately prescribed to a sick horse and he had allowed 90 days to elapse between treatment and entering in a race in Texas. As far as he knew, the regulation was still a 30-day withdrawal tested in blood or urine post-race. Then, the commission decided it would begin out-of-competition testing in the form of hair testing.

“[The testing] literally popped up out of nowhere,” said Broberg. “Their own rules of racing showed the withdrawal of 30 days, but with hair testing it could go back in excess of 60 days.

“When they first announced it, it was placed on a flyer in the racing office during the Lone Star Park Quarter Horse meet,” he said. “And you know, us Thoroughbred guys, we're always going into the racing office during the Lone Star Park Quarter Horse meet, so it was absolutely horrible communication. But I'm glad they're finally going to do it; you've got to do it the right way.”

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Broberg said he doesn't have any problem with dropping clenbuterol from his program, he welcomes the chance to eliminate it from Thoroughbred racing, and he doesn't mind the concept of hair testing, as long as the parameters are made clear for horsemen.

The Texas Racing Commission ultimately dropped its case against him.

He's not the only one to welcome the new form of testing in the state – the horsemen's organization has also voiced support for the measure.

“I think from a very broad sampling of horsemen, regulators, track operators, and owners in Texas, I think we all want the same thing,” said Marsha Rountree, executive director of the Texas Horsemen's Partnership. “We all want an industry standard that's above reproach. We want integrity in our product, integrity at the track. We want every person that's competing in Texas to have a fair chance at a purse because they're abiding by the rules and they're not trying to cheat their way into a purse.

“I think we believe that in the not-so-distant future, we believe it may become more standardized. We want to make sure we're in front of it, we have rules that address it, and that those rules are consistent and fair for every breed of horse that wants to come and race in our state.”

Rountree recalls that in May 2021, the commission pulled hair tests on Quarter Horses after the trials for the Sam Houston Futurity, which she said horsemen weren't expecting. Six finalists had clenbuterol or albuterol detected in their samples, and two more samples were considered inconclusive. The track made the finals a non-wagering event with only three runners.

After getting pushback from the horsemen that they hadn't had enough notice about the testing, the commission backed off its interest in hair testing until the fall. This time, the commission pulled hair at Lone Star for Quarter Horses, which Rountree said went fairly well. In January, when the Thoroughbred meet began at Sam Houston, the commission announced the hair testing would also come to Thoroughbreds, which was a surprise to those horsemen.

Rountree asked the commission if testing could be delayed until the rules could be hashed out in greater detail.

“So that everybody knew what to expect, when to expect it, and it would be fair across the board,” Rountree said.

The commission agreed.

“My decision to temporarily suspend hair testing in Texas was not about the rule making process, it was a response to concerns raised by Texas Horsemen's Partnership that needed to be addressed related to the implementation of the policy,” said Amy Cook, executive director of the Texas Racing Commission. “Specifically, the way the Commission implemented the hair testing procedure in May 2021, did not provide adequate notice and transparent procedures to participants in Texas horse racing. Therefore, I determined that the policy did not further the agency mission, which is to ensure the fairness, safety, and integrity of horse racing in Texas.”

The future of a national system

Out-of-competition testing (OOCT) – which includes blood, urine, and hair testing – is reputed to be a big part of the new national authority's approach to doping control. When the Authority was in talks with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to take on doping control enforcement, USADA CEO Travis Tygart and HISA chair Charles Scheeler made clear that they expected American racing would need to follow the lead of human sports, which invest most of their testing funds into OOCT, not post-competition testing.

Even though regulators and racing investigators have said for years that the way to catch doping is in OOCT and not in the test barn post-race, adoption of any form of OOCT was slow and spotty for some time. In this 2016 investigation by the Paulick Report, the Association of Racing Commissioners International reported that roughly 1 percent of drug tests in American racing was OOCT. In the previous year, there were 3,803 OOCTs performed, which includes both harness and flat races. From those tests, there were 45 positives – 44 for cobalt in Arkansas, and one for levamisole in Oklahoma. In 2014, 2,216 tests resulted in seven positives.

Today, those figures have shifted. Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said the organization is completing its survey on out-of-competition testing for 2021, but he has data indicating at least 20 jurisdictions conducting some form – up from nine at the time of our 2016 reporting. California is still the leader in this area, and recent developments in New Mexico's program have come with ambitious goals for OOCT numbers.

One of the challenges in implementing an OOCT program, besides the cost, is knowing what to do with positives when they come up – and how trainers should avoid getting a positive OOCT at the start of implementation.

In the case of Texas, a trainer who knows a horse has been treated with clenbuterol can request a hair test of their own, performed by the same laboratory used by the commission, to gauge whether they need to be worried about a positive. Kentucky and California also allow trainers to request their own testing if they know horses have been given regulated drugs and want to make sure they're not going to get a positive post-race or other test. But in the case of Texas hair testing, there are costs associated with that caution – roughly $100 – and they may have to be repeated or have further analysis done. At one of the public meetings focusing on hair testing in early February, trainer J.R. Caldwell said this season he was bringing Thoroughbreds to Texas from five different venues “that I had no control over.”

“Every one of then told me, they're good, they're clean,” said Caldwell. “I went ahead and tested them … I had one come back 'suspect' so I talked to my owner and he said we want this cleaned up.”

Caldwell said he was told after the first test the result was “inconclusive” so the owner paid for further analysis, only to have the result turn out negative. Dr. Travis Mays of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab said that's very rare.

That does raise questions for how Texas should handle positives on hair tests. Currently, Quarter Horses coming from neighboring Oklahoma would likely have had hair testing done at some other point in the season, but that form of OOCT isn't used routinely for Thoroughbreds anywhere. That means many that race in other states and are sold or claimed may come to a new barn in Texas with no previous testing history or missing medical records that would indicate if the horse received clenbuterol.

In discussions about the start of hair testing, trainers in Texas wanted to know more about when horses would be subject to having hair pulled. Would it be a requirement of entry, or a requirement for stabling on commission-sanctioned grounds? Requiring a negative test to enter the grounds seemed like it could make vulnerable the horses who had been off track for a period recovering from illness and were building fitness but not yet ready to run. On the other hand, requiring a negative test to enter a race would put the testing lab in a time crunch at the start of each new race meet.

The claiming game comes with another set of concerns for horsemen. Several trainers at the February meeting wondered if they claimed a horse that was positive for clenbuterol on an OOCT hair test, who gets blamed for the positive – the new trainer or the old trainer? Then, what happens to the horse while the new trainer waits for the drug to clear through tests?

Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director at the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said these are all questions that would apply to any new OOCT program, whether it deals with hair or not.

“Hair testing is a different matrix – hair, urine, blood, those are your matrices – but the reality is the analysis is the same as what's being applied to blood and urine,” she said.

Depending on the timeframe of administration, time of last hair test, and time of claim, it may be easy to tell with more detailed analysis that an administration was some time ago … or it may not. Drugs don't show up in hair tests right away, and different hair collection methods result in different time periods being sampled. Mays said that some drugs are thought to be detectable in hair a few days after administration for hair that's close clipped, while other drugs and other collection methods may not show the presence of a drug for a week or two post-administration.

While that time lag is unique to hair, it echoes a question that's come up in other types of OOCT so far – who's responsible for the detection of a banned substance when it's not clear when it was given? In California, two cases of bisphosphonate overages resulted in settlement or dismissals against John Sadler and Jeff Metz after investigations suggested the horses could have been given those drugs before the trainers had the horses in their barns.

Scollay points out that hair testing is a little more challenging than the traditional blood or urine samples for OOCT because it is known to be better at capturing some drugs than others, and because the timeline of administration is less clear.

Sticking to blood and urine for OOCT doesn't necessarily remove all ambiguity about administration timelines, either. Some performance-enhancing substances like EPO are chosen specifically for their tendency to leave blood and urine samples quickly, so if they show up in blood or urine, regulators can have some confidence a prohibited substance has been administered very recently. On the other hand, Scollay recalled one instance during her time as equine medical director at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission when officials became aware of a horse who had been administered Depo-Medrol in a deep intramuscular injection into its back. (Depo-Medrol is the trade name for methylprednisolone acetate, which is not a banned substance but a regulated therapeutic.)

“That horse was positive for Depo-Medrol for six months, maybe,” she said. “It ended up being on the shelf until it tested clear. I don't think any of us expected that. We knew if it were not put into a joint, if it were put into a muscle, it could be detected for 30, 60, even 90 days, but when you get to six months and the horse is still testing positive, that was a surprise to me.”

Texas is using hair testing to focus on clenbuterol only, but in places where broader OOCT may look for other prohibited substances, Scollay said regulators also need to decide what substances they think are relevant.

“This takes me back to my friend Dr. Paul Lunn [equine virology expert] who said to me, 'You never run a test, any test, until you have a plan to deal with any potential outcome – positive, negative, indeterminate,'” she said. “Some of that discussion still needs to be had about hair. There are things you can find in hair that I would be hard-pressed to believe impacted a horse's racing performance.

“For example, ketamine has been detected in hair – potentially related to a horse being gelded, or potentially related to chronic or intermittent exposure with someone who is abusing the substance. It's affiliated with a fairly high penalty classification if it were found in a post-race sample. I'm not sure we need to be excited about it in a hair sample as an out-of-competition finding. On the other hand, as an investigative tool or intelligence gathering, it may be appropriate to investigate the potential for substance abuse in the barn. That is a health/safety/welfare/integrity risk across the board.”

There is usefulness in knowing what substances are in horses, even if authorities can't use that information to impose sanctions against someone's license. It can be a starting point for regulators to keep rules against performance-enhancing drug use or therapeutic drug abuse as current as possible. Dr. Rick Arthur, former equine medical director at the California Horse Racing Board, recalled in 2016 that through OOCT, he learned “every Quarter Horse in major races was on clenbuterol and in the general Thoroughbred population, 58 percent of horses were on clenbuterol with some trainers at 0 percent and other trainers at 100 percent.”

These questions may have to be navigated on a national level if and when HISA mandates national OOCT under the same set of drug rules.

In Texas, horsemen, commission staff, and testing experts have held open meetings throughout early 2022 to come to understanding and agreement on those issues. Hair testing is scheduled to return to Texas on Sept. 1, 2022. Lone Star Park has announced that Quarter Horses will have to have a negative hair test as a condition of entry in its fall meet.

“It has the potential to be a problem. But I think the stakeholders in the industry, and especially in Texas, are willing to address it,” said Rountree. “Long term, we're hoping that hair testing all breeds of horses will lead to more integrity of our product in Texas and a level playing field for everybody who wants to participate here.”

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