How much can a few picograms of anything do to a horse?

How much can a few picograms of anything do to a horse?
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Today was the day many of us learned that a picogram is one-trillionth of a gram, and that 21 picograms of the anti-inflammatory medication betamethasone were found in a sample from Medina Spirit after he won Saturday's Kentucky Derby for trainer Bob Baffert.

Considering that a Thoroughbred weighs an average of a thousand pounds or so, how much difference can be made by a few picograms of anything?

Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Lexington, Ky.-based Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, put that into perspective during a phone interview with Horse Racing Nation Sunday.

She emphasized that she is not referring to the Medina Spirit case because she doesn't have any facts related to it. She was speaking only in general terms.

One of the ways betamethasone can be administered is interarticularly through a joint, Scollay said, and 9 milligrams would be a fairly typical dosage for a single joint.

     Related: Vet explains drug found in Kentucky Derby winner

"Betamethasone can also be used subcutaneously to inject around soft tissue structures that may be inflamed. It can also be applied topically; there's an antibiotic betamethasone combination spray that can be used to treat wounds or skin irritation. And I don't have any data on what sorts of concentrations in the blood or urine that results in. And then there's the other variable when a topical application is used: What happens if the horse licks it and ingests it? And I don't have any information on that either. So a concentration alone without any information on dose, route of administration, timing of the administration – you can't draw any conclusions just through a concentration alone."

Still, 21 picograms?

"Take a step back here, we're talking about a 9-milligram dose into a single joint," Scollay said — again, only hypothetically. "So it's a fairly limited space. But then that drug leaves the joint, enters the bloodstream and is distributed throughout the body. And remember that a racehorse has upwards of 50,000 mls (milliliters) of blood. So you're not talking about 21 picograms in that entire horse's body. You're talking about 21 picograms in one ml of blood. And there's 49,999 other mls of blood, not to mention all the other tissues, the muscles, the organs, the brain, the skin, all the other tissues of the body. That drug distributes throughout the entire body. So 21 picograms, you know, you can be a little overly reductive and say that's nothing. But when you can contemplate the total sum of medication that may be in the body at that time point. It's a different story."

Baffert said in his Sunday morning news conference that the 21 picograms discovered was 11 picograms over the limit. But he appears to have based that on outdated information.

Watch: Baffert's news conference on Kentucky Derby drug positive

"There was a rule up until this past fall where the threshold was 10 picograms," Scollay said. "That threshold was withdrawn prior to last year's Derby in September, a couple of weeks before that. So it is now it is limited detection. If you find it, it's a violation."

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