RCI: Racing's Test Results On Par With USADA, And Other Key Data Takeaways - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

RCI: Racing’s Test Results On Par With USADA, And Other Key Data Takeaways

A series of test tubes

This year's conference of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) was packed with perspective – both an analysis of where racing regulation is now, and a look forward at where it could be headed in the future with the upcoming implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA).

A lot of that analysis focused on something most regulators love most – data.

A few key statistics from the conference's first two days:

  • ARCI President Ed Martin provided a run-down of the 2021 drug testing numbers for the United States. The figures are complete for all states except Texas, as ARCI is still working to validate those numbers. Last year, there were 243,627 post-race and out-of-competition tests administered across horse racing breeds, with 1,150 adverse findings that resulted in regulatory action. Of those, 1,021 findings were in post-race samples; 765 in flat racing and 256 in harness racing.Nineteen states conducted 6,156 out-of-competition tests (OOCTs) on horses last year.Among post-race testing, 99.57 percent of samples were clear, while 97.9 percent of OOCTs were clear.

    Of positive tests, 2.4 percent of flat racing positives and 4.7 percent of harness positives involved Class 1 substances. As in previous years, the majority of positive tests were for therapeutic medications.

    Although Martin acknowledged there are many who believe there are performance-enhancing drugs which can escape the regulatory testing system, he pointed out the rate of positive tests for horse racing last year is roughly the same as what it is for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, suggesting findings in racing seem to be on track to the most comparable system for human sports. (In 2019, USADA's annual report indicated it issued 49 sanctions and conducted 7,336 blood and urine tests.)

  • Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, gave a rundown of drug testing and fatality figures for the Mid-Atlantic racing states. He said that in 2021, there were no positive findings from 1,879 OOCTs done in the region, and 164 positive findings from 42,961 post-race tests. As with the national numbers, most of these – 72 percent – were therapeutic findings.Palmer said there has been a 59 percent reduction in positive drug tests overall from 2016 to 2021, though he attributes some of that to reduced testing in 2020 due to COVID-19.
  • Palmer also presented data showing that, like the rest of the country, the Mid-Atlantic states have improved fatality rates in recent years. Fatalities have gone down 41 percent since 2012, although the number of starts in the same timeframe went down 22 percent.As is also true in California, which has been collecting equine fatality data for longer than any other state, Palmer said deaths at the racetrack fall roughly equally into three categories: racing, training, or “other,” which includes illness or accidents that do not take place during exercise. For whatever reason, racing deaths comprised a slightly larger part of the pie in the Mid-Atlantic in 2021, rising by about 8.2 percent.The Mid-Atlantic's fatality rate is still above the national average.
  • Dr. Sue Stover, renowned researcher at University of California-Davis and chair of the Racetrack Safety Standing Committee of HISA, presented sobering figures on U.S. fatality rates compared to other countries. 2019 data showed that while the U.S. had an equine fatality rate of 1.62 per 1,000 starts, the United Kingdom's rate was .80, Hong Kong's was .60, and Australia's was .43. With the recent release of 2021 Equine Injury Database figures though, Stover pointed out that the rates in the U.S. are getting better – the national rate was 1.39 per 1,000 starts in this country last year, continuing the downward trend seen since the EID first began collecting data.We also know, based on research from Stover and others, that somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries happen in areas later found on necropsy to have had preexisting damage.Stover pointed out this probably means horses' bones are getting overloaded in training and don't have time to adequately recover before experiencing another stress. Exercise of any kind creates micro-damage in bone, which ideally is repaired when osteoclasts remove damaged bone and osteoblasts build new, stronger bone at the site. This is how skeletons develop and adapt to work. The difficulty is the work of the skeleton to remove damaged bone is much shorter (two to three weeks) compared to the process of building new bone in that space (up to three months), so there's a lag where a site of previous damage is weak.

    Stover believes there are probably two time points inside each of these processes that are key; a horse may suffer a mild overuse injury and immediately afterwards may (or may not) show signs of lameness or discomfort. Two or three weeks later, the horse's pain is likely gone, as the damaged bone has been removed and the repair process has begun, but the horse is still vulnerable because the new bone hasn't been added yet. Added concussion during this time can make the repair process even slower. It is likely in this lag that fatal injuries occur, which also explains why they can happen in horses who had appeared sound in the days before their race.

  • For Stover, the key to preventing injury is accurately determining where a given horse is in the repair process. That can mean using advanced imaging technology to diagnose a mild lameness (at the start of the repair process). It can also mean reducing risk factors we know can make the repair process more lengthy or advance stress damage.There is also research showing the rate of accumulation of high-speed furlongs (in timed works or races) can also relate to injury risk, but it remains unclear where the “sweet spot” is for adequate adaptation without over-stressing the skeleton – probably, Stover said, because there are so many other factors that can impact how much a bone is stressed. Data shows the magnitude of load a limb takes is impacted by surface type, surface maintenance, conformation, and shoeing.
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