Horse racing eyes changes to stay relevant

New drug penalties, security, medication guidelines up for debate
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The horse racing industry has some very real problems to contend with these days as statistics show the sport has been in decline for the past few years.

The North American auction market for yearlings has fallen by almost half, from $561 million in 2007 to $302 million in 2010. Since 2007, when $14.7 billion was wagered on U.S. races, betting totals have dropped year after year, falling to $11.4 billion in 2010.

And The Jockey Club projects a 2012 North American registered Thoroughbred foal crop of 24,700, a decline of 8.5 percent from the estimate of 27,000 registered foals for 2011. The 2012 foal crop projection, announced Aug. 13, is expected to be the smallest foal crop since 1971, when 24,301 foals were registered. The number has been declining every year since 2005.

Bridled horse head

"As veterinarians, our ability to treat horses depends critically on having horses to treat. If we have fewer horses to treat, our income's going to go down. You can't just raise prices to make up the loss. It's not possible. It's not ethical. So we are taking a beating, and we will continue to do so for a few years, at least until the foal numbers go up," said Dr. Scott E. Palmer, American Association of Equine Practitioners Racing Committee chairman. "What it will take to improve the numbers is a healthy industry. So that's why everybody feels the compelling nature of the task ahead of us."

Medication issues

Some of the industry's woes have been tied to drug issues and, in particular, fans' antipathy toward the use of drugs in the sport. Currently, medications such as furosemide used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in Thoroughbred racehorses are the only medications allowed on race day in North America.

Earlier this year, the Horseplayers Association of North America conducted a poll of its members: 74.5 percent supported the phaseout of race-day use of furosemide within the next five years.

Veterinarians are trying to find solutions to fans' concerns while also maintaining practices that they believe are best for the horses.

The AAEP called a summit in June in conjunction with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (see JAVMA, June 15, 2011). In all, 72 representatives from the sponsoring groups and regulators and participants from 16 international racing jurisdictions formed nine groups to address race-day medications at the summit, covering topics such as how such drugs should be used, stable-area security, penalties, and the need for more studies on EIPH, just to name a few.

The summit was meant to redefine the discussion, so that instead of talking about whether one agreed with the use of furosemide, individuals would focus on understanding EIPH, reviewing treatment options and best practices for treating the condition, and determining how to best regulate that process in a way that is acceptable to most, Dr. Palmer said.

We know from a scientific and a medical perspective that furosemide is good for horses that race, but is it good for the business of racing? That paradox is one we've made an enormous effort to try to resolve. Fundamentally, we believe that what's good for the horse has to be good for racing.

Dr. Scott E. Palmer, chairman, American Association of Equine Practitioners Racing Committee

The RMTC board of directors held its own meeting at the end of the summit. It decided more information was necessary before making any recommendations or adopting model rules for how horse racing should move forward in North America. The consortium created four committees to study these areas of interest—penalty guidelines for medication violations, race-day security procedures, methods for administration of furosemide and adjunct medications, and a potential phaseout of race-day medications in 2-year-old horses within the next two years.

New reforms

The RMTC board of directors reconvened Aug. 4 after a full day discussing the committee reports. It voted to approve a handful of recommendations. Among them was a requirement that furosemide be administered on race day only by regulatory veterinarians. Only the New York State Racing & Wagering Board does this so far. New York found its racetracks had fewer problems with medication issues, and the approach turned out to be cheaper for the tracks, said Dr. Rick M. Arthur, RMTC officer and equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board.

The RMTC board also gave approval for the elimination of adjunct EIPH medications, as recommended by the committee studying that topic. As is, only 11 of 36 racing jurisdictions allow the use of adjunct medications, which have not been shown to be efficacious in the same manner as furosemide. Enhanced security measures at racetracks and a more severe penalty structure for medication violations were the other recommendations given RMTC approval.

The consortium wants to emulate practices adopted by international jurisdictions that better differentiate between doping and medication errors. Dr. Arthur explained that most violations are medication errors, such as a trainer administering a drug with veterinary instruction but doing so incorrectly.

"Some may try to see how close to the limit they can get, but usually people aren't trying to dope horses in that sense. They're simply using medications inappropriately," he said, so doping should be made more onerous and medication errors less so.

This would seem to make sense, particularly after looking at the findings from a recently released report, "Drugs in Racing 2010—The Facts." Compiled by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, it found that of the more than 320,000 samples tested in 2010, 99.5 percent did not, on the basis of existing testing protocols, contain any foreign or prohibited substances. The report also noted that the number of violative furosemide residues dropped 33 percent from 2001-2010.

The RMTC also hopes to take a page from global horse racing authorities by setting up drug detection limits, which will help the consortium establish a uniform policy for all 36 racing jurisdictions. So, for example, all jurisdictions would test for an innocuous drug such as methocarbamol at the same concentration. Veterinarians would know when they need to stop administering it and not incur a violation, Dr. Arthur said.

"The real stumbling block—as it is for any change in horse racing—is to have all states do it at the same time. That's been almost a nonstarter for racing and any attempts for uniformity," he said.

Medication phaseout?

Still unresolved is the issue of whether to completely eliminate race-day medications. The RMTC did not approve a phaseout of furosemide for 2-year-olds at its August meeting, but a committee is still studying the possibility.

Other groups have already started to move on the issue. Breeders' Cup officials announced in July that the use of race-day medications will be prohibited in World Championship races for 2-year-olds in 2012 and for all horses in 2013.

A recently completed study commissioned by The Jockey Club meant to analyze the current state and prospective future of Thoroughbred racing and breeding in North America seemed to support the Breeders' Cup decision.

The study, "Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding," found concerns over animal safety and welfare and drug use were consistent themes in consumer and stakeholder research as a detriment to the sport.

Thoroughbreds rounding the corner on a grass track

Dr. Arthur agreed, saying if horse racing wants to expand its market or reach out to people who are not currently race fans, the industry will have to address the drug issue.

"The fact of the matter is whether veterinarians like it or not, the public does not believe drugs should be used for competition in any sport. We'll have to deal with it one way or another if we want to expand the market and attract new fans. I think anyone who seriously looks at the economics of horse racing will see without new fans, the sport will wither away," Dr. Arthur said.

Dr. Palmer interprets the study's findings differently. He said it also identified a handful of other areas where racing could do work to improve. These included the lack of television exposure, poor scheduling of races, and the large number of races that overlap.

"The Mikensy group (which conducted the study) put the medication issue in its proper perspective. That's not to say medications aren't important, because they are. They did a good job looking at a wide range of issues in racing that must be addressed to make it healthy again," Dr. Palmer said.

He continued, "We know from a scientific and a medical perspective that furosemide is good for horses that race, but is it good for the business of racing? That paradox is one we've made an enormous effort to try to resolve. Fundamentally, we believe that what's good for the horse has to be good for racing."

The Jockey Club's study ultimately outlined nine recommendations, including increased television coverage; scheduling fewer, better races to increase field size and showcase the best horses; racing integrity reforms; and dissemination of best practices around the country.

The Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer, James L. Gagliano, announced that the organization's board of stewards has committed funding over the next five years to implement many of the wide-ranging recommendations contained in this major industry study.