Racing lab leads anti-doping field

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 April, 2011, 12:00am


He has been involved in uncovering some of the biggest racing scandals in Hong Kong for more than a decade, but Dr Terence Wan See-ming and his team at the Jockey Club Racing Laboratory are more proud of the fact that every sample is treated the same - and that every test is right.

The chief racing chemist is the guardian of the laboratory's unbelievable record of 41 years without reporting a false positive and, with more than 20,000 samples to analyse each year, that achievement is the envy of the drug-testing world.

Wan is in charge of the HK$60 million laboratory at Sha Tin racecourse, and leads a team of 45 staff, whose primary function is to analyse blood and urine samples taken from every horse in Hong Kong, every time they race, and to routinely test the jockeys for prohibited substances.

His team also provides support to international clients, and runs the molecular 'fine-toothed-comb' over positive samples which have ended careers, and even embarrassed some of the world's most powerful people.

In April 2009, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and one of the most prolific racehorse owners on the planet, withdrew from competition in an endurance race in the United Arab Emirates, after learning two horses he had ridden in recent endurance events had failed drug tests.

Wan confirmed through analysis that his horses tested positive to guanabenz, a drug used to relax blood vessels and control high blood pressure, which resulted in Maktoum serving a six-month suspension.

The penalties are not always so lenient, however, and when the team come across a sample irregularity in their routine testing, careful analysis is conducted to identify the exact substances and amounts before reporting the positive result to the Jockey Club's stewards, who have ended the careers of jockeys and trainers on the basis of the laboratory's work.

Last year, stewards disqualified talented Marco Chui Kwan-lai after the jockey returned a second ketamine positive, just months after returning from a six-month suspension for a first offence. He was refused relicensing in February after serving a one-year suspension for his second offence.

And more recently, the stipes have ordered apprentice Kevin Leung Ka-wai to face the Licensing Committee and show cause as to why he should not face the same penalty following his own ketamine positive. 'The most important role of a doping control scientist is to be objective,' Wan said. 'Although we are paid by the Jockey Club, we must be fair to all people and impartial to any bias.

'If a prohibited substance is found in a sample, it will be reported to the stewards and the relevant authorities would take action. Those penalties can end a licensed person's career, so it is vital that we can ensure that we do not report a false positive.'

Wan adds he and his colleagues rarely know who has provided the positive sample until after he has reported his findings to the chief steward Kim Kelly.

'The samples are all just a barcode to us, we don't know who the sample comes from until the stewards go back and scan the code, or until we read about the charges in the newspaper.

'Unfortunately, sometimes it is unavoidable that we know the name of the horse or the name of the jockey involved, especially in a high-profile international case, for which we might later test the B sample.

'We have developed a highly convincing procedure, and have never had any successful challenges of our findings, because we have documented all the evidence, and the sample is handled and tested correctly from the moment we receive it.'

The lab is heavily monitored by video surveillance. Many of the refrigerators and storage rooms are only accessible by electronic access passes, or keys held by the security department, to stop any contamination, manipulation or theft of the samples.

A glass analysis room - for handling independent B samples - is especially well monitored and controlled, the windows allowing observers to monitor the procedures taking place inside, without interfering in the process.

It is not a great leap to imagine Wan, with his spectacles replaced by tinted aviators, playing the part of a Horatio Caine in an episode of CSI: Mong Kok.

As it happens, Wan is a former forensic scientist with the Hong Kong Government Laboratory, and has implemented many of those forensic traceability procedures at the racing lab.

Physical security for the samples is aided by 16 CCTV cameras, controlled by joystick, with at least two cameras on any piece of machinery being used to test any suspicious samples.

'We also have a very strong electronic data vetting system, which tracks and records the results of each test. Not only does it save a lot of trees, but it is also very handy for data retrieval and traceability,' Wan said.

'It adds further credibility to our system. Even I cannot come in and change a record without the computer automatically recording the time and date of the change and my user name. This stops any possibility that the records can be tampered with.'

Wan also strives to maintain the clean image of Hong Kong racing through preventative measures, and his team's objective is not to have too many positive cases.

'We would never sweep things under the carpet, but in my opinion this is a very good system, that is very hard to beat, and it deters a lot of would-be cheats,' Wan said. 'We have good capability, the club has very good security control, not just in the lab but of the whole operation, and even our veterinarians are club officials, so this system is surely one of the best in the world in keeping the number of violations to a minimum and deterring drug-related offences.

'Over the past 10 years Hong Kong has had one of the lowest number of positives in the world. Only 0.056 per cent of post-race urine samples test positive. That is significantly smaller than the world average which is about 0.27 per cent.'

Full workload

The number of samples analysed each year in the racing lab, from horses, feed, supplements and jockeys: 20,000


The team found this number of drug positives during testing for the Beijing Olympics equestrian events at Sha Tin in 2008: 6

International demand

The number of 'B samples' the laboratory tests each year to verify the findings of overseas centres: 80

Rich outlay

The cost, in Hong Kong dollars, of the most recent mass spectrometer, which fingerprints chemicals in the urine or blood sample: $8m

Big measures

The number of mass spectrometers in the laboratory: 29

Small margins

The average percentage of post-race urine samples that have tested positive in Hong Kong in the past decade: 0.056%

Lengthy list

The number of prohibited substances under the rules of Hong Kong racing is: 970