Equine veterinarians hope to improve racing standards

Better drug testing laboratory funding, standards sought
Published on February 15, 2009
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Posted Feb, 1, 2009 

The state of horse racing is in flux, and no one knows this better than industry insiders.

At the American Association of Equine Practitioners' 54th Annual Convention this past December, a special nine-member panel of racing and performance horse officials convened for a moderated discussion titled "Medication: Past, Present, and Future in Racing and Performance Horses." The intent was to discuss current medication, testing, and penalty issues in racing and performance horse events, including past practices that have contributed to some current issues, as well as discuss where the equine industry appears to be heading.  
Eight Belles takes a lap
Eight Belles takes a lap during a morning workout in the days leading up to the 2008
Kentucky Derby.

State of the industry

Horse racing had a tough year in light of high-profile, sometimes tragic incidents, including the use of steroids with Big Brown and the on-site euthanasia of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby. 

"The industry response was a series of mixed messages," said Craig Dado, vice president of marketing for Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

In return, Dado said, the events have engendered unprecedented negativity in the racing industry. Dado, who spoke on behalf of Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, frequently referenced a consumer research study conducted in 2008 by the association.

Dado said sports fans, core racing fans, and racing industry participants view the sport as in decline and losing integrity by the day. "The more you know the sport, the less you believe it to be one that is of integrity," he said.

Core fans particularly abhor performance-enhancing drugs, the study indicated, which came from interviews of approximately 1,800 industry stakeholders. When asked to rate a variety of issues, fans said they were sick of a lackadaisical attitude toward the presence of drugs. In fact, nearly half, or 42 percent, of core fans believe performance-enhancing drugs are an important issue and rated it 10 on of a scale of 10. Fifty-two percent of industry stakeholders rated it the same way, as did 23 percent of sports fans.

"We can't talk our way out of this problem," Dado said. "We have to implement real, decisive, transparent, meaningful, swift change to regain credibility."

Dado emphasized the need for the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance to react to this public relations situation the way the makers of Tylenol responded prudently to the product-tampering case years ago, as opposed to the boxing industry, which Dado said "ignored warning signs over integrity."

He advocated for taking action, or else "a significant portion of our 7.1 million core fans will abandon the sport."  

Perception versus reality

Not everyone shared Dado's dour perspective on the industry. Dr. Robert Lewis, program moderator and former AAEP president, said "I don't think (steroids are) as ubiquitous as some people think. The public doesn't differentiate between therapeutic and anabolic steroids. That's a huge educational challenge to enlighten them on the difference between the two."  

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, agreed.

"It is the opinion of the industry as business people that medication, the entire aspect of it, has to change," Dr. Arthur said. "Therapeutic and performance-enhancing drugs are not differentiated by the public. It doesn't make sense to us, but perception is reality."

Continuing on the topic of fans, Dr. Arthur said they are the ones who pay to see racing, and if the industry is not successful, "they won't pay and we won't be successful ... The handle drives our business."

He also touched on the fact that 18 drug testing laboratories have their own protocols and methods. "Frankly, uniformity in rules is useless if you don't have uniform labs," Dr. Arthur said.

Most laboratories are funded by state governments and are one of the first things to get cut from the budget, he continued. As a result, variability in withdrawal times continues to exist among laboratories.

"We have to figure out a way to fund (drug testing) at a higher level," Dr. Arthur said. 

Looking to the future 

Dr. Scot Waterman, veterinarian and executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, says the consortium is looking to address the issue by tackling a three- to four-year research project that aims to determine uniform withdrawal times with a corresponding concentration of the relevant drug. The consortium also hopes to identify drugs with legitimate uses and prioritize drugs into five groups for more clarity in what should be permitted. This would be accomplished by reviewing previous science on each drug, or, if the science is insufficient, then performing administrations on a minimum of 20 horses, he said.

Dr. Waterman mentioned drugs such as acepromazine, butorphanol, detomidine, glycopyrrolate, mepivacaine, methocarbamol, pyrilamine, and lidocaine would likely be included in the first priority group to be addressed.

"These accounted for 65 to 70 percent of positives in the United States. They have caused the most trouble," Dr. Waterman said.

First, though, the consortium continues to work on a searchable database of withdrawal times for therapeutic medications used in racehorses. Located at www.rmtcnet.com under "Withdrawal times," information is posted for 18 jurisdictions and more than 70 drugs so far.

In addition, the RMTC has started to develop strategies to improve drug testing in the United States. This is imperative, Dr. Waterman said, particularly because no one knows the "right" number of drug testing laboratories that should exist. Some of the ideas are to integrate World Anti-Doping Agency standards, overhaul Laboratory Quality Assurance Programs, train the next generation of laboratory directors by developing a postdoctoral recruitment program, and develop a business plan for U.S. drug testing infrastructure.

For any of these initiatives to work, participating organizations must voluntarily comply. Dr. Waterman said the RMTC is beginning to see organizations use their leverage to promote change by using "sticks," or punitive measures. By that, he gave the example of entities such as the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee, and the Breeder's Cup, which have mandated anabolic steroids be prohibited.

That has happened in part as a result of the consortium developing model policies on prohibited practices, drug classifications, permitted therapeutics, uniform penalties for illegal and prohibited performance-enhancing drugs, and rules for the regulation of anabolic steroids. Most of the 38 racing jurisdictions have made these policies law or rule or anticipate doing so.

Stand and deliver  

Dr. Rick Mitchell, Newton, Conn., spoke on the role of veterinarians in the performance horse industry. He said it is up to them as practitioners to guide their clientele in the proper use of medications for reasons such as drug interactions and adverse effects. 

"I think it is a real concern in the performance horse world, where you have to take a stand on the side of the horse and be cautious in the use of 'helpful medications.' We need to research what they really do. The use of multiple medications in horses, it's indefensible to them (fans)," Dr. Mitchell said.

He mentioned the Federation Equestre Internationale's Medicine Box as a resource for performance and racehorse veterinarians to use. It lists scientifically based drug detection times.

Dr. Mitchell responded bluntly when asked whether he or other racehorse veterinarians sense pressure to do things they believe are not in the horse's best interest.

"I feel there's a lot of pressure, because of economic concerns and a desire to win, for the veterinarian to act as a gatekeeper for the welfare of the horse," Dr. Mitchell said.