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How did officials find an illegal substance in Medina Spirit’s blood?

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 6:08 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Betamethasone, according to equine medical experts, does not make a horse run faster. For that reason, it is not a performance enhancing drug in the strictest sense.

It is however a powerful anti-inflammatory, that when injected into a joint, could potentially mask a risky injury.

“A horse with a pre-existing injury could appear to be healthier than it is and put that horse at risk of injury if it were to proceed into a race,” Dr. Mary Scollay, Executive Director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) said.

The RMTC publishes an exhaustive list of best practices for testing racehorses. Under the guidelines, Medina Spirit would have been immediately escorted from the winners circle to a testing barn.

There, access is restricted and three blood samples are taken.

Just like in a crime lab, the samples are then meticulously catalogued as legal evidence, protected against contamination and shipped to a lab.

Scollay said a preliminary scan would have detected the betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s blood. A follow-up test would have to confirm it so there is no room for doubt.

“The lab has to establish an unequivocal identification of the molecule. So there’s the screening analysis to determine which samples require further testing,” Scollay said. “Then there’s the confirmatory analysis that establishes the unequivocal identification of that molecule.”

Samples tested from Medina Spirit found a seemingly miniscule 21 picograms, trillionths of a gram, per milliliter of blood.

“That doesn’t speak to the betamethasone that has left the blood and entered the tissues in the body,” Scollay said. “The lungs, the liver, the skin, the eyes. And so 21 picograms does not represent the sum total of betamethasone in that horse’s body.”

The presence of any betamethasone is not allowed in horses that are racing. But the findings can be challenged.

“Sometimes there are, there will be questions raised about how the sample was handled in a test barn,” Scollay said. “Or how it was handled in a laboratory, questions about chain of custody, was it interrupted in anyway? Because if it is interrupted, it can’t be sort of re-established once the chain is broken. That is an irredeemable problem.”

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