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Business and Economy

New Testing Lab Leads to Rise in Racehorse Doping Positives

Blood samples taken from harness racing horses in Maine are increasingly likely to exceed state standards for regulated substances. They spiked last year to a 10-year high — but that may have more to do with more rigorous state testing than anything else.

Most years, 20 or fewer of the thousands of equine blood samples from Maine standardbred horses test positive for regulated substances. But in 2015, the latest figures show the number of violations rose to 86.

William Varney, the chairman of the state Harness Racing Commission, says that coincides with the hiring of a new testing lab.

“They had more modern testing and so on so that they came up with some things that the old lab didn’t come up with,” he says. “At the same time they changed the list of medications and there were some new medications that were on that list.”

Among them is a substance called cobalt, which some in the industry believe enhances performance but which some also believe can harm equine health. Cobalt turned up above allowable levels in 38 samples last year, leading to license suspensions for several trainers, who are now appealing those decisions in court.

Varney says trainers so far this year appear to be doing a better job timing the administration of substances that are allowed within a certain period before a race, but which need sufficient time to be flushed from a horse’s blood stream before race day itself.