Blood doping racehorses

What counts as doping in horse racing? Just as with human athletes, certain drugs are banned outright in horse racing, including growth hormones, anabolic drugs that increase testosterone, and so-called blood doping drugs which allow the body to send more oxygen to the muscles.

Dr Mary Scollay, in a letter to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said blood doping via the use of small doses of recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) is occurring and evading detection.

The Paulick Report

Natalie Voss, in an article entitled, “EPO: What We Know, And What We Don’t, About The Blood-Doping Threat,” for the Paulick Report writes:

Open quote

When Lance Armstrong confessed in 2013 to taking Epogen to boost production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, horse racing fans began looking behind every tree for the boogeyman called erythropoietin, or EPO. Many had long suspected EPO had risen to prominence in horse racing in the 1990s alongside anabolic steroids, and news that one of cycling’s biggest stars was using it seemed to cement the idea it could be lurking anywhere – even at the top levels of the sport.

Thanks in part to Armstrong, many people have a basic idea of how EPO works. EPO is produced naturally by the kidneys of all mammals and signals the bone marrow to make more red blood cells. More red blood cells mean increased hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen. In the 1980s, a man-made version of EPO (recombinant EPO) was developed as a treatment for anemic patients who could not circulate enough EPO to keep their red blood cells at a safe level. Today, FDA-approved forms of EPO for humans include Epogen, Aranesp, Retacrit, and Procrit. When given to healthy people, however, the synthetic EPO boosts red blood cells to higher-than-normal levels, allowing athletes better endurance.

Most racing insiders who have some idea of what EPO does also know that it has been favored by human athletes in part because it’s difficult to test for. Like anabolic steroids, EPO’s competitive advantage lies in its ability to boost the body’s natural production of certain materials, but unlike anabolics, the drug itself disappears from the body quickly. One set of instructions written by a still-practicing veterinarian and provided to the Paulick Report in 2015 suggested the drug was given in repeated injected doses, often along with iron, for maximum effectiveness.

Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said she has no idea how common it really is, but she does get questions about it.

“We certainly hear about it,” she said. “It has been detected in a couple of cases in recent history. There are people who believe its use is profligate and others who say ‘I don’t think so.’ And I can’t answer the question.”

Dr. Mark Cheney, board member of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council (KEDRC), suspects the use has become more common than people want to believe. Cheney has been outspoken in meetings of the KEDRC over the effectiveness of EPO testing more so than any other performance-enhancing substance. Cheney is also disturbed by the volume of distributors marketing EPO-like products on the Internet.

“It is, I would say, just about epidemic use in our industry,” he said in an Oct. 2, 2018, meeting of the KEDRC. “Some trainers, I’m not going to mention any names, their horses are just rebreaking at the eighth pole.

“We’re never going to be able to test for these products . . . if we have just an inkling of research to show we can identify someone that’s using an epogenic product, as soon as you put that on the front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader, they’ll stop using it. There’s probably some pretty important people in this business that have done it.” Read more »

Horse Talk

Horse Talk reported in an article entitled, “Test sought to identify new horse blood-doping strategy,” as follows:

Open quote

Anecdotal reports suggest that some racehorses are being given micro-doses of recombinant human erythropoietin to improve performance, according to the equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

The micro-dosing regime is designed to avoid detection of the drug, which stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Abuse of the substance, known as blood doping, allows more oxygen to be carried to the muscles.

Dr Mary Scollay, in a letter to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said blood doping via use of small doses of recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) is occurring and evading detection.

“The concentrations of rHuEPO and/or Darbepoetin that result from micro-dosing may be lower than the sensitivity of the screening method.

“The effect exerted by these substances far exceeds the window of detection of these substances which are typically present in the blood for less than 48 hours following administration.”

Scollay said anti-doping research related to the detection of micro-dosing of rHuEPO in human athletes had identified changes in human RNA transcription signatures that indicate altered red blood cell production.

She sought backing from the commission for a planned two-year study that aimed to develop an affordable test to detect horses given micro-doses of erythropoietin.

“This proposal intends to apply RNA transcription sequencing to equine blood samples to determine if the approach used in humans can be applied to the equine.

Read full article »

The reason we are writing this is because we are suddenly being contacted regarding blood doping. We in turn have been contacting everyone from testing facilities to veterinarians to racing insiders in an attempt to get inside what is going on. So far we have come up empty. The little we did hear has simply been a regurgitation of what you just read above.

If you have a tip, email us at horsefund at with a contact number and we will call you.

Related Reading

Why equine blood doping is the last straw in Australia’s horse racing debate,” by Cruelty Free Super, (no date)

Can horse racing survive?”, The New Yorker, 24th May 2021

# # #

Featured Image: Not Cited.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s