A shocking six out of ten horses competing in the May 7-8 horse racing trials at
the Sam Houston Futurity in Texas tested positive for Clenbuterol or Albuterol.
They were detected in hair samples at of the horses at the Sam Houston Futurity, but not in plasma or urine samples, which raises the questions:
1) Why was hair testing the only method to detect steroids?
2) What future role will hair testing play in horse racing?
Both of the drugs detected in the Texas race horses are steroids. When ingested by horses, other animals and people, they function as:
What are clenbuterol and albuterol?
- Bronchodilators - widening the vessels that carry oxygen, increasing the volume of oxygen in the blood
- Decongestants - thinning the blood to reduce blood pressure
- Beta-2-agonist - increasing epinephrine and noradrenaline, thus burning fat and increasing energy
While Clenbuterol and Albuterol can be used as short-term treatments for asthma, they are better known as performance-enhancing drugs, predominantly used in body-building and weight-loss programmes to simultaneously reduce body fat and increase muscle mass.
Are clenbuterol and albuterol permitted in horse racing?
In short: no. In Texas, where the Sam Houston Futurity was held, the Texas Racing Commission treats the two steroids as class 3 drugs with a category A penalty. In short, they are prohibited in Texas for use in race horses of all breeds.
Outside Texas, Clenbuterol is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency for use inside and outside competition. Accordingly, the drugs are prohibited in most sports, most events and for medical use in most countries.
Why were these steroids given to horses?
Since Clenbuterol and Albuterol can be used to treat inflammatory airway disease (IAD) and recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) in horses, it's possible the steroids were given for that purpose.
However, considering that the drugs are known banned substances in Texas racing - and that the drugs would have gone undetected without hair testing - it seems plausible that they were used to increase lean muscle mass and improve race performance.
How were the drugs detected in the horses?
All 10 runners in the May 7-8 trials of the 2021 Sam Houston Futurity were subjected to urine, plasma and hair drug testing.
On analysis, hair samples for six of the ten horses detected Clenbuterol and Albuterol. Sample sizes were too small for two of the other horses, and the final two horses were clean.
Interestingly, the drugs were only detected because the Texas Racing Commission chose to supplement the usual plasma and urine testing with the novel method of hair testing.
The fact that hair testing was the only method to detect the steroids raises the question about how many other performance-enhancing drugs are missed in horse racing when hair testing isn't utilised.
Why was hair testing the only method to detect steroids?
Unlike other methods - such as plasma, urine and blood testing - hair testing can detect drugs from seven days and up to six months after consumption. Not only that, it's accurate and difficult to cheat. Both of these factors may explain why hair testing was able to detect Clenbuterol and Albuterol when other tests weren't.
What is the future role of hair testing in horse racing?
Although steroids can be used safely in short-term treatment plans, the long-term effects are not established.
Even in short-term use, Clenbuterol and Albuterol can produce major side effects on the cardiac, skeletal, immune, endocrine and reproductive systems.
In horse racing, Clenbuterol, Albuterol and other steroids can adversely affect the health of the horses.
And then there are the obvious implications of using performance-enhancing drugs in race horses: it affects the integrity of the sport.
How can hair testing help?
Whilst some drug tests are better at detecting drugs ingested close to the time of sample collection, hair testing is the best way to detect drugs up to 6 months after they entered the body.
Plus, hair tests can even determine which month the drugs were taken, which helps develop a picture of substance use over time.
In horse racing, given the long detection window, hair testing makes it much more difficult to cheat the system.
With that in mind, increasing the use of hair testing will improve drug detection rates in horse racing and help clean up the sport.
Can hair testing be used for drug detection in people?
For those savvy to its benefits, hair testing is used routinely in family law, social care, and other sectors to monitor drug and alcohol use.
Even though it's not the best choice of test for recent consumption, it can be combined with PEth blood testing to monitor both short and long-term use.
At Cansford Labs, we've developed a hair test that can be used to monitor drug use in both horses and people. If you have questions about our service, get in touch.
Image: By pfluegler photo via Adobe Stock