Hair drug testing the way forward for horse racing

Hair drug testing the way forward for horse racing

At the end of 2019, hair drug testing looked set to be introduced to tackle drug use in horse racing after William Carson became the fourth jockey that year to be banned for cocaine. The jockey admitted to doing eight or nine lines of the Class A drug 2 days before a race, and his sample had a concentration of cocaine more than 10 times over the permitted threshold. Now, hair drug testing is playing a part in the horse racing arena again, but this time to tackle drug use in the horses.

According to Jim Bolger, one of the most prominent horse trainers in Ireland, drugs are Irish racing’s number one problem. In an interview, he maintained that he doesn’t believe a level playing field exists in racing, and was concerned with the “lack of policing”, describing it as “not up to scratch”.

“There’s a rulebook there, certain things are forbidden. They are being used and it needs to be dealt with”, Bolger told the racing paper, The Irish Field.

Following the criticism, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) has defended its drug testing regime, saying that this year, it plans to drug test over 4000 horses. “The IHRB became the first horseracing jurisdiction in the world to enhance race day anti-doping testing by taking hair samples unannounced at the racecourse”, it said in a statement.

Hair drug testing of horses began last summer. The advantage of hair drug tests in comparison to blood or urine testing is that they can provide a detailed historical record of drugs used in a horse, including anabolic steroids. In some cases, the tests can prove that medication was administered years before. 

During 2020, every race winner in Ireland was tested by urine, blood and/or hair samples. In addition, intelligence-led and random testing were performed on race days. In total, 3032 drug tests were carried out by the IHRB up to, and including, the end of November, despite Covid-19 restrictions.

The statement went on to say that during the course of the year, numerous pieces of intelligence were assessed, which included the sharing of information with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).

“No evidence of doping was identified throughout this process and investigations remain ongoing”, said the IHRB

It maintains its pioneering use of hair testing on race days as evidence of its seriousness in fighting drug doping in the industry.

“Since 2016, the IHRB has continued to enhance the department of anti-doping with a 12% increase in samples taken on the racecourse including urine, blood and hair samples. There has been a 236% increase in the number of samples taken away from the racecourse and out-of-competition testing has increased from 8% of the total samples in 2016 to 21% of total samples in 2019.”

How do hair drug tests work?

Hair drug testing in horses is similar to human head hair tests. AlphaBiolabs provides two types of human head hair drug tests: overview or segmented analysis.

An overview analysis can provide a general indication of drug use. This could range from 3 cm to identify drug use within that 3-month time period, up to 6 or even 12 months, dependent on the length of hair available. In an overview test, any episodes of drug taking are averaged out over the period being tested.

Segmented analysis provides a more detailed analysis and the episode of drug taking can be pinpointed to the actual month. In a 3-month segmented analysis, hair samples are sectioned into three segments of 1 cm to provide three individual monthly analyses. Segmented analysis is therefore especially useful if you need to obtain a trend in drug use, such as to see a decrease or increase, or to highlight intermittent use.

AlphaBiolabs offers many drug testing solutions including hair drug testing, for the public, businesses and the legal profession. For information on what type of drug test is right for your needs, please call 0333 600 1300 or email us at