Looking for a new direction

Horse-racing veterinarians, stakeholders evaluate sport’s ethics
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The horse-racing industry is experiencing a time of reflection and transition.

A number of ongoing issues, particularly injuries and medication usage, were spotlighted this past year in the national media and before Congress, leading to further discussion of horse welfare at the track.

“It’s a sport rich in tradition but competing for relevance in today’s culture. The scrutiny from the public is greater than ever before, and horse racing is struggling to redefine itself in the international gaming market,” said Dr. Scott E. Palmer, 2005 American Association of Equine Practitioners president and outgoing AAEP Racing Committee chair, in remarks during the opening session of the 58th AAEP Annual Convention, Dec. 1-5, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif.

Multiple groups, including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, are pushing for reform in areas such as the racing business model and the lack of national oversight, but consensus is proving elusive, according to Dr. Scott E. Palmer.​

Dr. Palmer said the focus of the Racing Committee in 2013 will be to provide continued leadership in addressing the difficult issues confronting horse racing, to improve the owner-trainer-veterinarian relationship, and to continue the committee’s push for uniform medication rules in North America.

Put in the spotlight

2012 was a year filled with high-profile incidents and headlines about the sport.

In New York, for example, the state took control of racetrack oversight from the New York Racing Association after a series of fatalities at one racetrack. It has since created the New York State Gaming Commission as its replacement.

From December 2011 to March 2012, 21 horses died during races at the Aqueduct Racetrack in the New York City borough of Queens.

The outcry over these fatalities led to the creation of The New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety and a study, commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to examine ways of better oversight and new regulations.

The task force found that a combination of factors likely contributed to the increased rate of horse deaths, including the following: increased purses in claiming races that incentivized stakeholders to run substandard horses, the use of corticosteroids that may have limited the ability of veterinarians to identify pre-existing conditions that disposed horses to catastrophic injuries, and a lack of protocols for and inconsistencies in pre-race inspections and veterinary procedures.

The four-member task force, which Dr. Palmer chaired, made 36 recommendations in September 2012, and a number of them have been implemented, such as limiting drugs and prize purses to discourage owners and trainers from running unhealthy horses. New York racing authorities have also enacted rules that require trainers to disclose what treatments their horses have received as well as necropsy results on horses that are fatally injured.

The New York Times added fuel to the fire raging over challenges in the racing industry with a series of articles in 2012. One story published this past September titled “At the Track, Racing Economics Collide With Veterinarians’ Oath” challenged veterinarians’ ethics.

The story stated that “... racehorse veterinarians often live by a different code—unique in the veterinary community—one that emphasizes drugs to keep horses racing and winning rather than treating soreness or injury through rest or other less aggressive means.”

Dr. Kathleen M. Anderson, who practices sport horse medicine in Maryland, said Dec. 3 during the AAEP convention that the article should serve as a message that racetrack veterinarians need to look at the current business model and fee structure in their industry, and at communication strategies, particularly with absentee owners.

Another New York Times article that came out in March 2012 reported that five of the six tracks with the highest incident rates—the rate at which horses break down or get injured—in 2011 were in New Mexico. It also reported that New Mexico recorded no positive tests in 2010 and 2011 for the most frequently abused pain medicine in racing, phenylbutazone. Reporters were told that was because previous leadership “had cut back on the tests” for financial reasons.

Since then, there’s been an increase in activity in the state to crack down on some illicit behaviors that were high-lighted by the newspaper.

We are a benevolent bunch, well-educated and informed in the art and science of veterinary medicine. We know morals and laws and ethics. We cannot deny our charge to advocate for the welfare of the horse unless we are willing to do so in an intellectually dishonest way.

Dr. F. Richard Lesser, owner, Equine Clinic at OakenCroft, Ravena, N.Y.

The New Mexico Racing Commission, in September 2012, imposed suspensions and five-figure fines on three high-profile Quarter Horse trainers after their horses were found to have dermorphin in their systems. Dermorphin is a powerful painkiller that is found naturally in the secretions of South African frogs. A synthetic version developed for use as a performance-enhancing drug in racehorses is said to be 40 times as potent as morphine.

It was also announced in mid-January 2013 that Gov. Susana Martinez included in her fiscal year 2014 budget proposal $750,000 in new funding for the racing commission to implement proposed reforms to prevent and detect doping of racehorses at New Mexico tracks. These reforms include increasing the size of the penalties it can hand down, conducting more frequent drug tests, and boosting the staffing needed to enforce the rules and curb illegal match races held away from New Mexico racetracks.

Suggestions for change

These news articles and racing incidents raised sufficient awareness of problems in the industry for Congress to take notice. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing this past July at which eight members of the racing industry testified.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, who led the hearing, had previously introduced the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011, which would have banned race-day medication and the racing of horses under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs, suspended anyone from the sport after three violations of the rules, and required drug testing of racehorses by independent laboratories.

The July hearing focused largely on the use of drugs, therapeutic and illegal, in horse racing and how to stem their improper use.

One witness, Barry Irwin, chief executive of Team Valor International, which owned the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, said state racing commissions do a poor job of identifying and investigating illegal drug use at racetracks.

“Making matters worse is an absence of cooperation or uniformity between the states. Instead, we have a crazy quilt of drug rules that differ from state to state. This causes confusion for innocent trainers and regularly leads to positive tests that could have been avoided if uniformity of rules existed on a national level,” Irwin said.

“Adding to the confusion is that since race-day drugs were legalized in 1970, the public cannot distinguish between positives for therapeutic medications and ones considered to be illegal. As a result, the public cannot tell the good guys from the bad guys.”

Irwin suggested new and tougher federal laws as well as calling in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help.

Thoroughbred horse race in progress
According to the Jockey Club 2012 online fact book, the horse-racing industry has seen a steady and sharp ​decline in foal crops, starts, races, and handles at the racetrack. Purse money remains fairly static.​

Another witness, Edward Martin, president and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said while uniformity is desirable, there is a bigger need to commit additional resources to racing investigations, surveillance, and research and testing development.

He went so far as to advocate that the jurisdiction of racing commissions be expanded so there can be a review of treatments given to horses by veterinarians.

“If commissions had the ability to call into question an individual’s license to practice veterinary medicine in the same way a state veterinary board can, those who might facilitate the abuse of a medication to enable a horse to run that should not be running might think twice. Racing commissions can take away the racing license, but there is nothing preventing a racehorse from being treated by a vet without a racing license away from the grounds of the racetrack,” Martin said.

Laws, morals, and ethics

Many of these developments and more were topics of discussion during the AAEP meeting this past December.

During the session “Ethics, Scope of Practice, and Racing” on Dec. 2, Dr. Palmer spoke about the specific ethical problems that racetrack veterinarians encounter, including determining appropriate medication protocols.

He said many of the ethical lapses have to do with economic pressures.

“The business model of racing and the unintended consequences of this business model are what drives the way we practice veterinary medicine to a large extent. That’s something we have to realize and deal with,” Dr. Palmer said

Sports medicine doctors have two roles, he said—protect the health and welfare of the horse and ensure the horse is in its best condition prior to competition.

“There are times when these roles come in conflict, and when that happens, we must err on the side of the horse. We cannot let finances trump our morality and our obligations as stewards of the horse,” he said.

The biggest ethical quandary racetrack practitioners face is the appropriate use of medication. Dr. Palmer referred to the Racing Committee’s Clinical Guidelines for Veterinarians Practicing in a Pari-Mutuel Environment as a collection of practices “that put the welfare of the horse uppermost.”

One important part of the document, he said, is the issue of treating horses by entry date.

“The AAEP believes that making health care decisions based on the entry date is not fundamentally in the best interest of the horse. ... All medical treatments of the racehorse should be based upon a veterinary diagnosis with appropriate time allowed following the treatment of an injury to ensure that the horse is recovered prior to the race,” he said, adding that appropriate documentation and communication are key, too.

“We don’t always do the right thing, but with that said, we must confront those difficult choices with honesty and clarity of understanding of our role as medical professionals and stewards of the horse,” Dr. Palmer said.

Dr. F. Richard Lesser, who also spoke during this session, expanded on Dr. Palmer’s last point in his talk titled “Decisions That Matter: The Complementary Roles of Law, Morals, and Ethics in Equine Practice.”

Dr. Lesser, owner of the Equine Clinic at OakenCroft, in Ravena, N.Y., said that ultimately, laws will not solve all the problems in horse racing.

“When we attempt to legislate morality, don’t be lulled into thinking laws will direct the moral compass of a person. When we say people should just do the right thing and have no pressure behind it, that won’t work,” he said.

What is needed is courage by stakeholders to make moral decisions, he said.

Dr. Lesser encouraged action by horse-racing veterinarians.

“We have got to engage on what we have decided is right. Doing the right thing often means putting ethical good ahead of our short-term desires. It takes courage we find admirable in others but we shy away from because of apathy, fear, or greed,” Dr. Lesser said.

He continued, “We are a benevolent bunch, well-educated and informed in the art and science of veterinary medicine. We know morals and laws and ethics. We cannot deny our charge to advocate for the welfare of the horse unless we are willing to do so in an intellectually dishonest way.”

Striving for uniformity

Just in recent months, the horse-racing industry has seen some movement toward greater uniformity.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International board of directors gave preliminary approval this past December for changes affecting the requirements for controlled therapeutic medications, as newly defined in the RCI Model Rules.

The RCI is an organization of state racing regulators. It develops model rules that it encourages its members to adopt. These changes are intended to promote uniform guidelines regarding the use of certain medications.

Guidelines on a total of 17 medications were compiled. For each of these medications, a withdrawal time long enough to ensure the drug is out of the horse’s system on race day or at a concentration low enough so as to not affect performance is specified. Any drug not on the list will not be allowed in the horse’s system, at any concentration, and its presence will result in harsh penalties.

The revised model rules were developed through input from The Jockey Club, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, and the RCI Scientific Task Force.

In addition, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has been developing recommendations for the way horse racing should move forward in North America, also in an effort to improve consistency among jurisdictions. On Nov. 30, 2012, it approved minimum withdrawal time recommendations for corticosteroids at an RMTC-hosted Corticosteroid Experts Conference in Anaheim, Calif. The recommendations were based on recent research at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California-Davis, Kenneth L. Maddy Laboratory, HFL Laboratory Kentucky, and other corticosteroid research centers in the U.S. and abroad.

Finally, the AAEP Racing Committee, with the help of a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Business, is crafting a toolbox for veterinarians to address challenges in the owner-trainer-veterinarian relationship in terms of transparency, integrity, and accountability. Already, committee members have surveyed owners and trainers in the Standardbred and Thoroughbred industries and gathered information on priorities and concerns from their points of view as well as from the point of view of horse-racing veterinarians. The committee also looked at architects and their contracts with builders and owners as a model.

Ultimately, Dr. Palmer said, veterinarians must own their role as the ultimate provider of health care of the horse in a pari-mutuel environment.

“The dynamics of the owner-trainer-vet relationship confound this fundamental truth. Yet, veterinarians must be the advocate for the horse in all matters pertaining to racing,” he said.

The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association launched an advocacy website, cleanhorseracing.org, this past year that is dedicated to the reform of medication rules. The site features news, videos, studies, and commentary in support of medication-free racing.