The Journal of Proteome Research may not feature on your monthly reading schedule – for business or leisure – but a notable study published in its February 2020 edition (abstract at link), could be a step on the path towards identifying far better methods of doping control in horse racing.

Specifically, scientists from the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) racing laboratory successfully identified the presence of krypton against a control group through the monitoring of biomarkers left by the krypton for up to 13 days following administration, which was the last sample of the study, when compared to only a one-hour detection time after administration using existing testing methods.

Put another way, a substance which can normally be identified for just one hour after delivery using existing testing was identified consistently via biomarkers over each of 13 days using a newer method which remains under evaluation.

Formally, the study was published under the title: “Label-free Proteomics for Discovering Biomarker Candidates for Controlling Krypton Misuse in Castrated Horses (Geldings).”

Hong Kong has been well ahead of the industry curve in this area of the sport for some time. All horses must pass a test on the morning of racing before being allowed to take their spot in the starting gate later that day. Tests of each race winner, favorite and other selected horses occur post-race as well.

In 2016, the HKJC revealed details of their original foray into biomarkers research. Below is an excerpt from that original release:

“Biomarkers monitoring is a revolutionary detection approach and has the potential to fill the gap where conventional drug testing either fails, or encounters significant challenges,” said [then HKJC Head of Racing Laboratory] Dr. [Terence] Wan. “We firmly believe this is an important alternative approach for the future.”

A biomarker (or biological marker) is an indicator of a physiological state resulting from biological or pathological processes, some of which are in response to an external pharmacological (drug) or non-chemical intervention. In order to cope with rapid drug development which is challenging the conventional “chemical testing” approach to doping control, biomarkers monitoring focuses on the biological effects of drugs instead of testing for the residual presence of specific substances.

“Despite advances in analytical sciences, doping with proteins, peptides and other emerging products of biotechnology, including individualized medicines tailor-made from one’s genetic information, is most difficult to identify by conventional drug testing,” Dr. Wan added. “This new approach has excellent potential to:

-        Identify indirectly, and collectively, the misuse of numerous undetectable or difficult-to-detect substances;

-        Improve the detection windows for fast-eliminating but long-acting substances;

-        Perform longitudinal monitoring of biomarkers profiles of racehorses to identify any changes due to the effects of drugs or other forms of doping, the so-called biological passports;

-        Identify the administration of naturally-occurring (endogenous) prohibited substances;

-        Differentiate between the surreptitious treatment with a banned substance by a certain route of exposure and the inadvertent exposure to the same substance by another route.”

In David Callahan's 2004 book , "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead,” now retired Penn State University Professor of Health Policy and Administration and Exercise and Sport Science Charles Yesalis offered a sobering assessment of doping control in sports.

“The current drug tests we have – only careless and stupid people flunk them…It’s done for public relations, directed at naïve journalists and naïve fans.”

In concert with our now twice-referenced comment from the Head of the Athletics Integrity Unit, Brett Clothier that “testing does not work,” and cognizant of the racing industry research being conducted in Hong Kong on advanced methods of doping control, we ask the question yet again – how can racing’s voluminous data be used to assist in identifying incidents that fall beyond the reasonable consideration of natural performance?

For every call to adopt uniform medication policies and centralize doping control functions, how is racing in North America using other methods to keep the sport, and its participants, safe?

We hypothesize that having more widely available data, in modern formats and at little to no cost to users, would inspire greater industry awareness meant to keep racing clean. If our testing methods are far behind those in development in Hong Kong, every opportunity to identify outlier performances should be used, even if to guide investigative resources.

The quest for “free data” isn’t just about getting past performances into the hands of horseplayers – it’s about ensuring confident participation for the future.​​​​​​