In order to prosecute a United States Equestrian Federation drug charge, the underlying testing protocol must be scientifically repeatable, reliable and generally accepted in the scientific community, according to the latest suit filed against the Federation. California horse trainer Archibald (Archie) Cox, III, and horse owner Meredith Mateo are challenging USEF’s GABA science in a New York court.
The court filing comes after the USEF Hearing Committee ruled in August 2015 that Cox and Mateo violated Federation rules by exhibiting Cartaire after the horse was administered gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally occurring amino acid.
USEF brought the charge after Cartaire was exhibited at the Blenheim Summer Classic II Horse Show in August 2014 in the 1st Year Green Working Hunters Undersaddle by Cox. A lab test showed GABA levels “in excess of normal physiologic levels” from Cartaire’s blood sample.
The Hearing Committee suspended Cox for five months and fined him $5,000. Mateo was ordered to return all prizes and pay a $300 fee.
Cox is fighting to maintain his unblemished record as a top hunter/jumper professional. The Brookway Stables owner is a horse trainer, exhibitor, large R hunter/equitation judge and small r horse show steward. He and the horse’s owner maintain their innocence.
USEF banned GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in 2012. The Federation stated during research and administration trials involving “Carolina Gold,” containing GABA, that “many adverse reactions were documented”.
The natural level of GABA in horses has not been scientifically established and varies by horse due to a variety of factors including age, breed, fitness level, disease states, and diet, according to court documents.
Since that time USEF has relied on an “action level”. The number is based on the work of veterinary toxicologist Dr. George Maylin. The long-time USEF consultant was enlisted to develop a method for testing GABA levels in equine blood. For population studies, 100 thoroughbred race horses were utilized to determine the physiological level of GABA in horses.
Dr. Maylin also conducted an informal study of 12 pleasure horses. The compounded drug Carolina Gold, from Wedgewood Pharmacy, was utilized as the source of GABA. The horses’ blood samples were examined using a laboratory testing kit designed for use with liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Based on his results, Dr. Maylin opined one of 10,000 horses would have an endogenous level of GABA higher than 190ng/ml.
USEF implemented Dr. Maylin’s recommended “action level” of greater than 190ng/ml to prosecute members. He presented the results at the International Conference of Racing Analysts and Veterinarians.
No GABA threshold has been established.
Critics in the scientific community note Dr. Maylin’s work is not supported by peer-reviewed scientific literature; it has not been validated through a controlled, consistent, and repeatable study; and it has not received acceptance in the scientific community.
Additionally, USEF’s lab in Ohio, nor any other, is accredited to quantify GABA levels, according to the suit.
USEF gathered additional data in an in-house study utilizing eighty-five retired horses. Laboratory Director Thomas Lomangino headed up the Kentucky project that used validated gas chromatographic-mass spectral method to analyze blood samples for GABA. He reported a normal physiological level of equine GABA is 62ng/ml.
In 2014, USEF changed the “action level” from 190ng/ml to 100ng/ml based on “anecdotal reports”. USEF employees said they heard the substance was being heavily abused at shows.
“People started treating it [190ng/ml] as a target,” Dr. Stephen Schumacher Chief Administrator of USEF’s Equine Drugs and Medication Program said during the petitioners’ hearing. “…We found people were trying to titrate the dose and target 190, so they could get below 190 but still get the effect… We thought we were being nice.”
Two positive GABA reports, including Cox’s, have surfaced since the new “action level” of over 100ng/ml was implemented, according to Dr. Schumacher. Cartaire’s blood samples contained a GABA level of 188ng/ml.
A total of 11 GABA cases have been prosecuted, according to USEF.
Where the reliability and admissibility of scientific evidence are concerned, New York law requires the proponent of evidence demonstrate the underlying principle or procedure has gained “general acceptance in its specified field.” New York courts have applied Frye, which reveals “whether the expert’s conclusion is based on accepted scientific principles, rather than simply the expert’s own unsupported beliefs.”
This is not the first time the science behind USEF’s GABA “action level” has been challenged before a Hearing Committee. Florida Equine Attorney Bonnie Navin says she made Frye challenges in a July 2013 hearing on behalf of her client Patricia Jenkins.
“Sadly we had fully intended to do what Mr. Cox has done in his challenge,” Navin says, “but Ms. Jenkins succumbed to a brain tumor and passed away. The challenge before the New York Court is long overdue.”
In April 2015, a peer-reviewed study at UC Davis, done by Dr. Heather Knych evaluated the pharmacologic effects of GABA on horses. The Knych Study found GABA did not have a calming effect on horses.
The petitioners are asking the Court to vacate USEF’s final order because the Federation’s GABA protocol is scientifically unreliable. In the alternative, they are asking the Court to conduct a Frye hearing to determine whether the scientific evidence upon which the petitioners’ violations were based is accepted by the relevant scientific community.
This is the second Article 78 petition filed in the last month against USEF. Florida horse trainer Thomas Wright and the owner of Fonteyn, John and Stephanie Ingram, LLC, of Tennessee are asking the Court to find USEF was arbitrary and capricious in its finding of a GR410 violation.
View Case (Includes hearing transcripts)
Horse Authority (formerly Rate My Horse PRO) champions social change initiatives to improve horse welfare. Since 2010, we’re empowering the equine industry through awareness and knowledge-based tools. Get involved in our horse community for good today because together we can do more to improve horses’ lives.