This past summer I reported on the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission’s apparent decision not to seek to penalize a trainer following a finding for flumethasone in a horse that raced in the summer of 2017 at the Meadows, a harness track outside of Pittsburg (link to story). The commission’s records show that the horse in question had a flumethasone concentration of 95.4 picograms per milliliter (pg/ml).
Flumethasone is a potent corticosteroid. But unlike several other corticosteroids, it does not appear on the therapeutic medication schedule approved by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
In the piece linked to above, I reported that a recent scientific study suggested that a 100 pg/ml threshold could permit race-day administration of flumethasone without triggering a positive test.
Not a positive test below 100 pg/ml? Really?
And this isn't the only one.
This article was written based on a sliver of records for a relatively short time period.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
What else is out there?
I have since received more documentation from the commission in the form of spreadsheets of some test results from testing performed by the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory (PETRL) from 2016 and 2017.
As I previously believed, there were more flumethasone positives out there. In fact, there were six more. All of which were identified during the period between January and July 2016, each regarding horses that ran at the Meadows. Unlike most of the laboratory findings provided to me by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) for other drugs, concentrations of flumethasone were not reported for any of these six findings.
I asked the PDA why the concentration levels were not provided. Their response:
These samples do not have a concentration level because while the lab detected the presence of the drug, the method for validating the quantity was still being developed. The lab recommended issuing warnings on these findings.
Dr. Richard Sams has served as a laboratory director responsible for equine drug testing at Ohio State University, University of Florida and, most recently, at LGC Laboratory in Lexington, Ky.
Dr Sams said:
“The warnings issued for the flumethasone, a corticosteroid, findings do not make sense because flumethasone is not a threshold substance and is not on the National Uniform Medication Program (NUMP) list so a finding at any concentration should have been a violation. Flumethasone is not an approved veterinary drug in the U.S. but compounding pharmacies prepare it in bulk and sell it to veterinarians, so it is readily available. In my opinion, it could and should have been reported regardless of concentration.”
Dr. Sams believes that most other U.S. laboratories and racing commissions would also consider all eight findings positive tests requiring enforcement against the offenders in question. That would not only be consistent with prevailing industry standards at the time but also consistent with protecting the integrity of racing’s product. Otherwise, depending on concentrations, the drug could still be used at lower concentrations, thereby producing clinical effects on the horse without risk of sanction.
Based on PETRL’s Internal Threshold document I received through an official Right-to-Know request, I have found that PETRL did not have a threshold for flumethasone during the time in question.
The fact that the laboratory had no threshold for flumethasone during that time should come as no surprise, as there was no nationally approved threshold (and this remains the same today).
Flumethasone falls in the category of most drugs and other substances that equine testing laboratories across the nation encounter – those that are not approved for therapeutic uses and have no threshold. In most all cases, these drug and other substances are positive tests at any concentration.
In most states, if the presence of a non-threshold drug, such as flumethasone, is found in a horse’s sample it is not necessary to determine the quantity to pursue a violation as a positive test.
According to Dr. Sams, equine testing laboratories have a potential to detect anywhere from 1500 to 2000 drugs and other substances. Only a small handful have a threshold.
This leads to the most important question: With more than 1000 similar non-threshold drugs out there, are there any other findings by PETRL, for drugs other than flumethasone, that have been detected in testing but have gone unprosecuted?
We simply don’t know.
In the next installment of this series I’ll explain why we don’t know and why it is so important to find out.