Inside the Kentucky Derby, America's greatest racing party

Kentucky Confidential


The Derby Drug Positive Protocol

Forty-three years have passed since Dancer’s Image came flying off the second turn in the 94th Kentucky Derby and into the history books as the only Derby winner to be disqualified for a drug positive.

The amount of phenylbutazone in the colt’s system would eventually become somewhat of a moot point, as the non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory painkiller was soon widely accepted for regulated use and already legal at many tracks in the country.

Not at Churchill Downs, however.

The disqualification wound up as Sports Illustrated‘s “Sports Story of the Year,” and it took four years before legal wrangling over redistribution of the purse money was finally settled (Kentucky State Racing Commission vs. Fuller, 481 S.W.2d298 KY. 1972) with Forward Pass being awarded the victory and earnings.

Today, drug testing of runners in the Derby field occurs at a much higher level simply due to the advances made in technology. Even though the race is by far the most important in the country, protocols for testing and adjudication are no different than for any other race in Kentucky worth more than $100,000.

Kentucky Confidential went to Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and Chief State Steward John Veitch for the inside scoop on exactly how a Kentucky Derby drug positive would be detected and addressed.

Drug testing at the Kentucky Derby has three components, Scollay said. The first is out-of-competition testing; horses are sampled for prohibited substances approximately 10-14 days prior to the race.

The second is a test of carbon dioxide (TC02) levels in the blood, commonly used to detect “milkshaking,” an outlawed practice that involves delaying the buildup of lactic acid in a horse’s muscles and increasing stamina via a mixture of bicarbonate and or other alkaline substances. This second test occurs about 15-30 minutes before the horses leave the paddock.

Finally, the winner of the Derby and three or more other horses selected by the stewards after the race are subjected to post-race testing; their blood and urine is collected and the samples are tested for approximately 1,500 different prohibited substances. Stewards generally want to test the top four finishers in a race, others if suspicious activity catches their attention.

In all races worth $100,000 or more, such as the $2 million Derby, three “gold” samples from three individual horses and one “red” sample from a fourth are taken to the lab, Veitch said. The gold samples are always tested, and the red sample is held at the lab. If any of the three gold samples come back positive, the red sample is then tested.

When the lab returns with a suspicious test, that specimen is put through a more rigorous confirmation test. If the confirmation test returns a positive, the trainer of the horse is notified and permitted to have a split sample (which was collected from the horse at the same time and stored separately) analyzed by an independent laboratory.

In most situations, if the results of that test are consistent with the initial lab finding, a stewards’ hearing is held to determine the appropriate course of action.

“Our labs can notify us of results within 72 hours of receiving samples, but if there’s a need to do additional testing, that can take an additional seven business days,” said Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “It may take as long as 17, 18 days for us to get a final lab report after the race. If a trainer elects to have a separate analysis done, that takes another 30 days, and then the stewards’ hearing is set.”

Drugs under the “prohibited substances” banner fall into four classifications – A, B, C, and D.

Class “A” drugs are those that have no legitimate therapeutic application in horses and have not been approved for use in the horse by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Their potential to influence performance is high based on their presence.

Class “B” drugs are those that may have a legitimate therapeutic indication in the equine athlete but also have a high potential to influence performance based on their presence.

Class “C” drugs are those that have a therapeutic application in the horse and have a low potential to influence performance based on their presence.

Class “D” drugs include those therapeutic medications for which concentration limits have been established by the racing jurisdictions as well as certain miscellaneous agents like dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) and other medications as determined by the regulatory bodies.

“When we receive a positive report from the lab, we contact trainer and owner that are involved,” Veitch said. “The trainer bears the ultimate responsibility for the positive but we notify owner because it may deal with a loss of purse. We give the option to send a split sample off to an independent lab to confirm the positive that’s been found by racing commission. If the positive is confirmed, the trainer has a right to a formal hearing but he may also waive his right to a hearing, and then we just assess a penalty.

“If it’s a class “A” or “B” drug, before we notify the trainer that he has a positive, we’re permitted to initiate an investigation and barn search,” Veitch said. “When we receive notification from the lab, we generate a packet that includes a copy of the letter from the lab, a copy of the test barn materials that include the in and out sheet documenting who attended the horse in the test barn, and also a copy of the race results and program – all the pertinent information we need. We give that packet to the investigator, and he’ll go to the trainer’s stable and do a thorough search at which time the barn will be sealed off so nobody can come in or go out or remove anything. We also have the authority to go through the trainer’s vehicle and the stable employees’ vehicles or dorm rooms to find out where the medication came from and if the trainer still has it.”

The archaic part of the procedure comes down to an essential gag order upon individuals at the racing commission, and the restrictions upon that organization and its’ members often result in a justifiable media maelstrom that can break out after a positive. Stewards, the first level of adjudication, are forbidden from making a public pronouncement until the involved individuals have received due process, which means that a hearing has been held and a penalty has been issued.

Once a trainer has been notified of his positive, however, word generally gets out. Apparently, the specific media or communications policy in relation to a drug positive in the Kentucky Derby would remain the same as for a normal race.

“From a standpoint of making an official announcement to the media or anybody else, by law, we have to give the person his right to a fair hearing before he’s crucified by the media,” Veitch said.

More: , ,

Author PhotoA Chicago native, Claire Novak is the winner of the 2011 Media Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary and has written on racing for some of the nation’s best-known outlets, including ESPN The Magazine and, the Associated Press, and NBC Sports. She is a former staff writer and current correspondent for The Blood-Horse Magazine, and is also a guest correspondent for Lady Luck on TVG. Visit her website or follow Novak on Twitter. More by  ›