Pennsylvania’s Drug Mess: Will the Commission Redeem Itself?

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission (PHRC) is at a crossroads. One road leads to a shot at redemption. The other will reinforce Pennsylvania’s reputation as a state where integrity is of little concern.

The PHRC is embroiled in a mess of its own making. In my opinion, in any other state this would be a five-alarm fire with all hands on deck getting to the bottom of it. At the same time they would be at the forefront, communicating to the public and the horsemen that regulating with fairness and transparency is of utmost importance to them.

But remember, we are talking about Pennsylvania, a state where the past history of its regulators has been, in my opinion, generously described as “being asleep at the wheel.”

Maybe the commission has become so desensitized from all the previous scandals that they are oblivious to a mess of their own making?

I have written in the Paulick Report recently about the harness side of the PHRC failing to call a positive test for oxycodone, an RCI Class 1 drug, in a $252,000 stakes race.

In another Paulick Report piece, I outlined that at least four betamethasone findings reported by the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory (PETRL) were not pursued as violations by commission staff. That’s not all. The threshold level of the drug flumethasone was set so high that it could likely be administered on race day without being reported as a positive test.

In order to get to the bottom of this, I did try to talk to the people who could shed more light on the subject. My attempts to interview Dr. Mary Robinson, acting director of the PETRL, Russell Redding, chairman of the PHRC, and Brett Revington, bureau director for Standardbred Racing, were all unsuccessful. I have submitted by email several pertinent questions to the Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture. I have yet to receive a response.

Maybe they have chosen not to rebut these allegations because the facts lead to a conclusion they do not want to address?

The issues emerging thus far are threefold: (1) not pursuing a positive finding for a Class 1 drug in a $252, 000 stakes race, (2) four findings by the PETRL for betamethasone that did not result in final sanctions, and (3) apparently maintaining a flumethasone blood concentration level well above what the experts deem to be performance-enhancing.

All deserve a thorough critique. In this column I’ll focus on betamethasone.

Betamethasone

PETRL reported findings of betamethasone over the recommended national standard of 10 pg/ml.

In response to my inquiry of the commission regarding the threshold for betamethasone, I received this reply:

The Pennsylvania State Racing Commission (SHRC) approved the ARCI Therapeutic Medication Guidelines for standardbred racing, which includes Betamethasone, on February 27, 2018. Prior to that date, the threshold level for Betamethasone in standardbred racing samples was 100 pg. Noting the standard deviation of +/- 9.2 for the sample you referenced, the SHRC procedure is to not declare the sample a “positive” if the finding in the sample can fall below the threshold level applying the applicable standard deviation. Accordingly, by the governing standards and procedures on July 11, 2017, the referenced sample fell below the applicable threshold level and no “positive” was called.

A common sense review of the facts leads to significant questions about this 100 pg/ml threshold.

First, why would the PETRL laboratory report a finding below the threshold if it wasn’t actionable? Who is in a better position than the laboratory to know what the applicable threshold level is?

Why would a laboratory waste resources on communicating a test result that wasn’t above the applicable threshold?

“No laboratory would. It’s contrary to industry norms and it makes no sense,” said Dr. Richard Sams. Dr. Sams should know. He has served as a laboratory director responsible for equine drug testing at The Ohio State University, University of Florida, and most recently, at LGC Laboratory in Lexington, Ky.

Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said, “It simply is not the practice of a laboratory to report findings on therapeutic drugs that are below the threshold.”

Second, some of the findings of betamethasone at issue that were reported by PETRL to the bureau director of Standardbred Racing, Brett Revington, were forwarded to the judges at the track for administrative action for a positive test.  Why would Mr. Revington repeatedly have forwarded these reports if he believed the threshold was 100 pg/ml?

Third, based upon the information we have, it is safe to say that the judges fined one of the trainers for a positive test that had a blood concentration over 10 pg/ml but under 100 pg/ml.  My reasonable guess it that they would not have done so if they thought the threshold level was 100 pg/ml. Further, the commission had previously distributed a list of drugs with their corresponding thresholds. That list was the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule and it indicated that the threshold for betamethasone was 10 pg/ml.

The commission publicly disseminated that list to industry stakeholders including trainers and veterinarians.

As I interpret this matter, the above-referenced 100 pg/ml threshold for betamethasone during the 2016-2017 racing calendar was:

  • Contrary to the prevailing science at the time, which found that the proper threshold should be 10 pg/ml
  • Contrary to the recommendations of the RMTC
  • Contrary to ARCI model rules
  • Inconsistent with the reported findings of the PETRL in these four cases
  • Inconsistent with the ARCI list given to the judges by the commission
  • Contrary to the ARCI list given to the horsemen and veterinarians by the commission

Taking all of this into account, let’s take a step back and look at how this all played out:

  • One person who got a betamethasone positive finding from the PETRL was the president of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.
  • After that, the leading trainer in the history of harness racing in the U.S. got a positive finding as well.

What do you think? Coincidence?

From the information I have, it appears that even after these two positives were reported no clarification on the applicable threshold levels was issued. Those left in the dark include individuals who are critical to the administration of the drug testing program. It doesn’t appear that the laboratory was notified because they reported findings of a positive at a threshold above 10 pg/ml six months later. Likewise, the judge I spoke with said that no official communication was sent to the judges notifying them of any change in thresholds.

This betamethasone business is just one component of what appears to have been an egregious situation that strikes at the heart of the integrity of the sport. And it places the commission at the epicenter.

Crossroads

I said earlier that the commission was at a crossroads. A commission meeting is scheduled on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Harrisburg, and this matter is ripe to be acknowledged and explained in detail.

Will the commission take a stand? Will they take appropriate action?

The comment that the Pennsylvania regulators were “asleep at the wheel” in connection with the Murray Rojas matter is attributed to The Jockey Club Chairman Stuart S. Janney III at the 2017 Round Table Conference in Saratoga. For many, the phrase stuck for one good reason – because they see that the facts supported it.

I already said that the commission is at a crossroads. Will they wake up and choose the right path?

We will find out Tuesday.

Comments (1) -

  • According to at least the preliminary agenda for the meeting...it is not listed anywhere to be discussed

Add comment