It’s Triple Crown season: Here’s what to know about horse doping

Scandals in U.S. horse racing constantly erupt. What will it take to get doping under control?

Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test last week, calling into question his victory and spurring speculation about whether the colt might lose its title just before the Preakness Stakes, the second race in the Triple Crown event. (He didn’t.) Trainer Bob Baffert first denied the charges but later admitted he’d treated the horse with an antifungal ointment, maintaining he wasn’t aware it contained the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone.

This latest scandal is part of a rising tide in horse racing: last year the U.S. government indict more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians, and drug distributors for participating in doping rings. In 2019 the Jockey Club released a report calling for reform in the horse racing industry after the deaths of 22 horses at Santa Anita Park, a racetrack in California, citing improper drug use as a critical problem. (Here’s why horse racing is so dangerous.)

Drug use in American horse racing is complicated. Some drugs are perfectly legal at certain times and in certain dosages. Anti-doping regulations vary from state to state, sowing confusion about what is and is not permitted and helping cheaters skirt the rules. And it’s not just about preventing an unfair advantage—it’s about protecting the horses too.

Here’s a run-down of racing’s rules—and why a new law that goes into effect in 2022 may set it on the right track.

What counts as doping in horse racing?

Just as with athletes, certain drugs are banned outright in horse racing, including growth hormones, anabolic drugs that increase testosterone, and so-called blood doping drugs, which allow the body to send more oxygen to the muscles.

But there are hundreds of therapeutic drugs regularly used to care for racehorses—and those can be abused to give a competitive edge or to mask an injury.

“It’s a sliding scale,” says Mary Scollay, executive director and chief operating officer of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a Kentucky-based organization that focuses on research, education, and advocacy. “There’s really horrible stuff, and there’s really benign stuff. Most everything else falls in between.”

In most countries, the use of medications is banned on race day. But in the U.S., some drugs traditionally have been allowed. Determining whether their use crosses over into doping, however, comes down to dosage, timing, and the intent of the trainer.

There’s a perennial ethical debate about whether or how to treat a horse, says Mary Robinson, director of the Equine Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, which conducts drug testing for racetracks in the state. “It really needs to be a discussion between a trainer and a veterinarian,” she says. “Just like any human goes to their doctor and they have a discussion about the risk-benefit analysis of taking a medication, the same thing has to happen with our animal patients.”

What drugs are likely to be abused—and why?

One of the most contentious drugs in horse racing is furosemide, commonly known as Lasix. In humans, it’s used to prevent fluid retention for patients with heart failure, liver disease, or kidney problems. For the majority U.S. racehorses, it was given on race day, ostensibly to prevent bleeding in the lungs. But because it’s a diuretic, it also can cause horses to lose weight—and run faster.

Trainers who use the drug argue that it would be inhumane not to administer it, but others point out that unmedicated horses race in most other countries without incident. In 2019 a coalition of major U.S. racetracks, including those that host the Triple Crown races, agreed to ban the use of Lasix on race day, starting in 2021.

Other drugs that regulators worry about are those used to relieve pain—most notably, anti-inflammatory corticosteroids like betamethasone and the nonsteroidal drug phenylbutazone. While these painkillers help horses that are recovering from injuries, they can be dangerous when it comes time to race.

“I think of these as performance-enabling, not necessarily performance-enhancing,” Robinson says. Rather than allowing an animal to exceed its natural abilities, these drugs allow it to keep going in spite of an injury, she says. (Horses may be evolving over time to run faster.)

“That animal is not cognitive enough to know that they have an underlying injury, so they will then push themselves more than they otherwise would and then potentially have a catastrophic traumatic breakdown,” she says.

A recent study that found that 90 percent of horses that sustain fatal fractures have preexisting bone disease. Because of that, Scollay says, it’s important for veterinarians to be able to detect signs of the disease—which corticosteroids are designed to suppress. “We’re not trying to ban these medications; we’re trying to regulate their use” to protect the horses, she says.

How is doping regulated?

In the U.S., there isn’t a national horse racing regulatory authority—yet. Each state’s horse racing commission sets its own anti-doping rules and develops its own system of how to deal with rule-breakers, from drug testing and investigations to levying penalties.

But in December 2020, Congress passed a law establishing the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. When it goes into effect on July 1, 2022, this body will set national standards for the sport, including regulations, testing, and enforcement.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Scollay says. For years, the patchwork of rules across the U.S. has caused confusion, and it’s at least partly to blame for the high level of failed drug tests, she says. Trainers must keep track of what each state says about the dosage of a drug that can legally be administered and how soon before a race.

“It was an insurmountable challenge for the trainers,” she says. “It set people up to fail.”

State-by-state regulations also have made it easier for cheaters to evade the system or to seek out races in states with more lenient policies. Some states, for example, might only send blood samples to laboratories for testing—meaning that drugs that can only be detected through urine or hair sampling can pass unnoticed.

What other changes are needed?

But even as the regulatory system evolves, so too do the methods used to bypass it. Robinson says that it’s a constant battle in her field to stay on top of new synthetic drugs and how to detect them.

“As drugs have been discovered, that has also opened the opportunity for new drugs to be abused,” she says.

Furthermore, in recent years breakthroughs in gene therapies have given veterinarians new ways of treating diseases by triggering cells to create proteins that promote healing or bone growth. While they have therapeutic value, they also open up the possibility of gene doping among equine (and human) athletes.

In the past, Robinson says, it’s been unclear how pervasive gene doping might be in horse racing because there was no way to detect it. In February, however, her team of researchers at University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school announced they’ve developed a new test that can detect the use of gene therapy, adding another tool to their arsenal to curb illicit drug use.

Another way to help limit doping would be for the sport to place a greater emphasis on continuing education, Scollay says. She compares it to getting a driver’s license: Every so often when you renew your license, you have to retake the driving test to make sure you remember the rules of the road and are up-to-date on new developments. But most states have no such requirement for renewing a racing license.

“As an industry we haven’t done a very good job about educating our stakeholders,” she says. “We expect them not to make mistakes, but we haven’t given them many tools to assist them.”

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