Lexington growing as a 'test' market

David Hall, head of HFL Sport, a Newmarket, England-based company, is opening one of two new equine drug testing labs in Lexington, and already has plans for expansion.
David Hall, head of HFL Sport, a Newmarket, England-based company, is opening one of two new equine drug testing labs in Lexington, and already has plans for expansion.

With two labs moving to Lexington, Kentucky is poised to become a hub of equine drug testing for both racing and horse sports. And possibly much more.

After the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the U.S. Equestrian Federation is moving its testing and research lab from Ithaca, N.Y., to a 7,500-square-foot facility at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Campus.

Once the lab is up and running in December, it will conduct testing for USEF-sanctioned horse shows in the United States, a broad swathe of equine sports that encompasses just about everything except racing.

USEF's CEO, John Long, said the Lexington lab will be 60 percent larger and more efficient than the existing lab, so he anticipates expanding its business. Already the USEF does testing for the American Quarter Horse Association and the U.S. Polo Association, as well as several other countries in the region.

Where the USEF lab leaves off, the other will pick up.

HFL Sport Science, based in Newmarket, England, is opening a U.S. auxiliary in Lexington that, beginning in February, will conduct drug testing for Kentucky Thoroughbred and harness racing. And HFL is hoping to win contracts for more racing jurisdictions soon.

But that is likely to be only the beginning.

HFL Sport's CEO, David Hall, said in a recent interview that the Kentucky lab, on Alysheba Way in Hamburg, will move into testing human sports supplements for banned substances, something the company does now in Britain.

From there, Hall hopes to expand into human-fitness screening, measuring fitness markers in sweat and saliva, which the British lab also does.

According to the HFL Web site, its kits can be used to look at things such the cortisol-to-testosterone ratio, which could indicate an athlete's level of performance-related stress. Or to monitor the loss of key nutrients such as sodium and potassium in sweat so an athlete could tailor rehydration to specific needs.

Both are niche markets with plenty of room to grow, Hall said.

"From a doping-control point of view, when you look at the marketplace, there are only 33 racing states. We're the 19th laboratory in the U.S. to service that market. It's a limited market space, but there's room for a high-quality laboratory, we believe," Hall said. "But if you put on top of that the supplement-testing work, which is a much higher growth potential, then look at the fitness-testing work moving forward, that's the evolutionary route we're looking to take HFL Sport Science in the states."

Supplement testing has been controversial, and the World Anti-Doping Agency now prohibits its accredited labs from performing the tests for supplement makers.

After HFL began supplement analysis, the lab withdrew from WADA accreditation in 2007.

With the supplement-testing business taking off, "it was a simple decision for HFL to withdraw from WADA accreditation," Hall said.

HFL has focused instead, Hall said, on a quality-control program for supplement makers "to give athletes confidence — no guarantees — but confidence that that product has been tested for contamination that might give rise to a positive drug test."

HFL now markets itself as the only lab doing supplement work that has also done WADA testing.

Although substances such as steroids are banned, they are readily available online and elsewhere.

And those who make the raw ingredients sold to supplement makers often deal in both the legal and the illegal.

"The manufacturers that the respectable end of the market uses may also be producing these steroid-laden products for other clients," Hall said. "They're all typically third-party manufacturers, so you have cross-contamination."

HFL annually tests about 5,500 samples of supplements of all types, many from the United States.

"What we're proposing is that quickly after opening the laboratory, all the sample analysis will get shifted from Newmarket to Kentucky," Hall said. "It's a significant amount of business at this time, with great potential for growth. The market for supplements in the U.S. is huge. ... What we're looking to do is to provide a service to the industry to help reassure the market, the customer that they're taking safe products."

To run the Lexington lab, HFL has hired Dr. Rick Sams, head of the Florida Racing Lab at the University of Florida, which has the current Kentucky drug-testing contract. "Sams has very close relationships with the horsemen in Kentucky so it's a very nice piece of continuity there," Hall said.

Hall said HFL as a wealth of research experience and wants to tap into the University of Kentucky's extensive research facilities as well.

HFL is already talking to UK about ways the company can partner with them: for business interns, for pharmacologists, for veterinary researchers.

And HFL is talking to UK Athletics about the fitness screening, with an eye toward an eventual pilot project to tap into the amateur athletics market.

Hall said that the connection between Kentucky and British horse racing, in particular, is already bearing fruit, with more to come.

"When you're working with HFL in the U.S., you're automatically linked to HFL in the U.K. ... The ability to have a network to allow the sharing of intelligence, to share research costs will be hugely beneficially to" both countries' regulators, he said. "We're able to start brokering a whole range of contacts that previously Kentucky wouldn't have been able to get at."