Uniform horse-racing rules gaining momentum

10 jurisdictions have signed on to national reforms
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Odds are good that the horse-racing industry will implement its own uniform medication rules in the near future.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association sent a letter dated Sept. 30, 2013, to pari-mutuel regulators for the 38 U.S. horse-racing commissions urging them to adopt uniform national reforms involving medication regulation and enforcement, including laboratory testing. The letter was co-signed by more than 50 racetrack and industry organization leaders. The American Association of Equine Practitioners signaled its support on Dec. 6, 2013.

These reforms were developed by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the industry’s scientific advisory organization, and the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the association of state racing regulators, which develops model rules it encourages its members to adopt. The RMTC recommended the reforms to the ARCI, which voted in April 2013 to incorporate them into its official model rules.

It’s now up to the various regulatory bodies to adopt the reforms. The proposed adoption deadline was Jan. 1, or as soon as possible thereafter.

Eight states in the Mid-Atlantic and North­east—the two regions that comprise the largest concentration of daily racing in North America—jointly agreed in March 2013 to implement the reforms at the start of 2014. The participating states are Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. As of early January, Texas and California also had signed on. The rules are currently under consideration or in various degrees of passage in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington, and Wyoming.

“These reforms are in the best interests of the health and welfare of the horse and the safety of the rider, enhance the integrity of our sport, ensure a level playing field for our competitors, assist horsemen who race in multiple jurisdictions, and accomplish the uniform regulation of racing in the United States,” according to the NTRA letter.

Proposed reforms

Reform in the U.S. horse-racing industry has been a long-sought-after goal.

The issue was given more immediacy when in May 2013 the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013 (S. 973/H.R. 2012) was introduced in Congress. The bill would designate the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency as the national nongovernmental organization that would develop, maintain, and publish rules on medications used in racehorses. The bill also seeks to end all race-day medication use, including that of Lasix (generic name furosemide; see JAVMA, Jan. 1, 2014.

The proposed reforms, however, would keep the oversight within the industry and continue the practice of furosemide administration on race day. Specifically, the letter calls for the following:

  • The ARCI Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule. It lists 24 medications that have been recognized as necessary for the treatment of illness or injury in horses on a routine basis. The schedule was developed on the basis of years of research by the RMTC and in consultation with the AAEP, ARCI, and industry chemists and pharmacologists.
  • Multiple Medication Violations Penalty System. Under the new system, each drug or medication violation would be assessed points, and at certain point-total thresholds, the offending trainer would serve an additional suspension. A trainer’s record in every jurisdiction would be tracked by a central database maintained by the ARCI and made available to each jurisdiction and state.

    A total of seven states have committed to implementation of the MMV penalty system, and regulators in many other states have indicated a desire to adopt the system once the uniform medication rules are passed in their respective jurisdictions.

  • Restrictions on the use and administration of furosemide. These restrictions would require that furosemide continue to be the only medication authorized for administration on race day. They would also limit the timing of furosemide administration to no less than four hours before post time. Further, they would require that furosemide be administered only by third-party veterinarians or veterinary technicians who aren’t working as private veterinarians or technicians on the racetrack.
  • Laboratory Accreditation and Minimum Standards. They would require that every participating state’s drug testing laboratory be accredited by the RMTC according to the consortium’s code of standards, which conform to international laboratory standards (known as ISO/IEC 17025 certification). Currently, 10 of 14 labs are ISO-accredited while eight of the 14 have applied for RMTC accreditation and are undergoing review, two have been fully accredited by the RMTC, and one has interim accreditation status.

A starting point

Momentum appears to be building in favor of the proposed reforms; not surprisingly, however, most concerns about the proposed reforms have to do with medication rules.

Racetrack veterinarians at Saratoga Race Course
Racetrack veterinarians at Saratoga Race Course in New York. The state is one of eight that agreed in March 2013 to implement reforms involving medication regulation and enforcement, including laboratory testing, at the start of 2014.

Notably, the administration of clenbuterol would not be permitted within 14 days of a race, and the intra-articular administration of a corticosteroid would not be allowed within seven days of a race.

Standardbred trainers and veterinarians expressed concern about the restricted drug administration times and also asked the RMTC to consider more liberal drug testing thresholds.

Clenbuterol is used to treat inflammatory airway disease, but it’s also been shown to produce an anabolic steroid effect in horses. The 14-day withdrawal time would negate that effect to a degree, but Standardbred trainers and veterinarians are anxious that the timing would lessen their ability to treat IAD.

They’re also worried about the withdrawal time for corticosteroids because Standardbreds compete more frequently than other breeds—as often as every week. So, for example, if a Standardbred raced on a Saturday to qualify for a race the next Saturday, and it had a joint issue, the trainer and veterinarian would be going outside the seven-day rule by giving the horse a joint injection on Sunday following the first Saturday race.

Standardbreds race in progress
Standardbred trainers and veterinarians have expressed concern about the drug withdrawal times and testing thresholds for corticosteroids and clenbuterol outlined in proposed national reforms. They have asked the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium to consider more liberal thresholds.

Finally, trainers and veterinarians argue that Standardbreds differ enough physiologically from other breeds to warrant different medication rules.

The RMTC convened a panel to look into the issue. It released two position papers in early December 2013 that said the current testing thresholds for corticosteroids and clenbuterol should remain. The panel also said, however, that the RMTC should work to add albuterol and guaifenesin to the list of controlled therapeutic medications as soon as possible, as they are suitable alternative treatments to clenbuterol.

Dr. Scott Hay, chair of the AAEP Racing Com­mittee, said although the RMTC understood that the business model and racing schedule are different among breeds, it didn’t see any difference physiologically, and anabolic effects of clenbuterol could still be a factor.

The AAEP Racing Committee and board of directors each voted Dec. 6, 2013, to endorse the NTRA’s proposed reforms. At the same time, the AAEP wrote a letter to the RMTC that suggested 17 of its own recommendations that were based on an evaluation by its Uniformity Task Force.

The AAEP as well as the RMTC panel maintains that for corticosteroids, it wants to see any reference to “restricted administration times” replaced by “recommended withdrawal times” in the regulations.

Dr. Hay says this is not only because restricted administration times are nearly impossible to enforce but also because there isn’t much science behind them. The existing testing threshold for corticosteroids should prevent intra-articular administrations close to the race while allowing other appropriate treatments with smaller doses.

The AAEP recommendations went so far as to suggest that “all jurisdictions implementing new rules on the use of long-acting corticosteroids need to provide low-cost or no-cost programs for veterinarians to submit samples for corticosteroid testing to gain feedback on their intra-articular or other corti-costeroid use.”

Map: Current status of U.S. horse-racing medication reforms (as of mid-January)

In addition, the AAEP and the panel want an implementation period of three to 12 months for any jurisdiction implementing new rules on long-acting corticosteroids.

“During this implementation period, therapeutic overages should not be penalized. Feedback to both the trainer of any tested horse as well as its attending veterinarian with regard to therapeutic overages is imperative during this implementation period,” the AAEP letter said.

Dr. Hay explained, “We’re getting a bunch of states that are changing rules, and (the RMTC) is telling us you can’t go above this threshold, but we don’t have that much information on what that means to how we’re using the medications. …I don’t think it’s so important that we have a get-out-of-jail-free card, so to speak, but certainly we need to get some feedback to practitioners to know if what they’re doing is proper or improper.”

It takes time

Dr. Jeff Blea, incoming president of the AAEP, said his organization has been heavily involved with the Jockey Club, RMTC, ARCI, and other organizations to help finally make uniform rules a reality.

“We would prefer supporting industry stakeholders (rather than federal oversight). We think strides have been made in the last year where the industry has said, ‘We’ve got to fix this,’” Dr. Blea said. “I’ve seen different organizations come together and work things through, and we’ve been at the table, too, to make this right.”

The entire process still has a way to go. Stakeholders, including the AAEP, will take the proposal to the NTRA, which in turn, will take it to each of the 38 racing jurisdictions. Buy-in from every jurisdiction will be necessary.

“I think most states are looking to go this way and want to keep regulation of racing in-house and don’t want to go federal. Certainly there’s incentive for them to do so,” Dr. Hay said. “I’m not sure what the hesitation is from some states. ... Change is hard. Regardless of what the (new) rules are, some places think they’ve already got a good rule and would rather stick with that than make a change.”

When, or if, all 38 jurisdictions agree, the proposed reforms would go back to the RMTC, Dr. Blea said, and then to the ARCI, which would put its final touches on the proposal, as it has the last word on what the document would look like.

There would likely be multiple implementation periods for many of the provisions.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet,” Dr. Hay said. “I think if we get bigger states involved, most everything else will fall in line. It just takes time. Some states are regulated by legislative acts that take time to work through, while in some states, it’s easier. But there is some momentum, and we’ll see how it pans out.”

Related JAVMA content:

Drugs, regulation in horse racing discussed on Capitol Hill (Jan. 1, 2104)

Renewed focus on race-day medications (June 15, 2011)