SARATOGA SPRINGS If there is one issue that won’t go away in horse racing, it’s the use of drugs for the equine athletes.
People have argued — and will continue to — over which drugs should be used, if they should be used, how much of each drug should be used and when they should be used.
People inside and outside the sport agree that drugs are an important issue because of the health of the horses and the fairness for bettors. Beyond that, it seems that they won’t agree on the time of day.
The issue was in the spotlight again last weekend during The Jockey Club’s 63rd annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing. At that conference, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) reviewed their 10-point initiative. The basic points are to support a national uniform medication program, ban anabolic steroids in training, restrict the administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to 48 hours before racing (which New York already does), create national uniform procedures for veterinary’s list reciprocity and look for alternatives to race-day medication, like Lasix.
The Jockey Club also discussed H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2015, sponsored by U.S. Representatives Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). Also, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she would sponsor the bill in the Senate. That bill would designate the United States Anti-Doping Agency be in charge of national drug testing.
Kathleen Anderson, DVM, the president-elect of the AAEP, said the veterinary’s list reciprocity is essential.
“This is a system that should protect our racehorses,” Anderson said at the Roun Table Conference, “and they should not be circumvented by simply entering a horse in another racing jurisdiction.”
When it comes to Lasix, it gets a bit stickier. Anderson acknowledged that the AAEP currently supports the use of Lasix as the only medication allowed on race day, and that science shows it can benefit horses.
“The Lasix conundrum, however, is a major challenge for U.S. horse racing, and we recognize the cultural changes around us in regards to drugs and sports,” said Anderson, who noted the AAEP will begin to investigate alternatives this fall.
Trainer Rick Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, is opposed to H.R 3084 as it reads now. Supporters of the bill say it’s a work in progress and won’t be brought before Congress until it has more support. Violette is not holding his breath.
“They need consensus within the industry,” Violette said. “There’s certainly no consensus within the industry on two items: Lasix and federal intervention. So you have to be a little dubious when they won’t even call Lasix Lasix; it’s always ‘race-day medication.’ And that it really isn’t federal intervention when it takes Congress to pass it and an anointed entity that doesn’t really exist is going to basically control our industry and we get no federal funds.”
Violette said the Lasix issue is a tired –- and well-reserached –- one.
“We had all those meetings up the wazoo about Lasix — national, local, regulators, horsemen’s groups, politicians — there’s no consensus to change it at all, other than third-party administrator, which was done and was a good thing,” Violette said.
The meetings will continue, as the New York State Gaming Commission is hosting a day-long forum to discuss the policy and practice of Lasix administration on Aug. 25 at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs.
But the one word in the bill that a lot of people within and outside the industry like is “uniform.”
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“I think it would be good to have uniform testing and uniform medication administration platform, whether you’re at Prairie Meadows or Saratoga,” said local trainer Richard “Kerry” Metivier. “You go some places and you can use Depo-Medrone (an anti-inflammatory steroid) or you can use clenbuterol (a bronchodilator) day of race. Other places like here, Depo is now six months.”
“The game is always going to have a pharmacology aspect to it,” said Jim Hooper, a breeder and former trainer who owns Haven Oaks Farm in Fort Edward, “but a uniform set of rules and guidelines would certainly simplify things.”
Hooper is one who would like to see future rules go even further, especially when it comes to X-rays. While the New York State Gaming Commission has an online corticosteroid administration database that trainers can log onto to see how many times and on what joints a horse has been injected, Hooper sees a loophole.
“If a vet comes in and feels a horse’s ankle, does a flexion test and doesn’t like it, let’s take an X-ray then or require one before the horse races,” Hooper said. “Nowadays it’s less than $200. The trainer legally can turn around, inject the horse a couple days later and then a little while later that horse will pass the flexion test. But an X-ray might reveal something that should keep him from racing.”
Hooper noted that any prospective owner at this week’s Fasig-Tipton yearling sales would want to see -– and most likely get -– a full set of X-rays on horses they’re considering buying.
“But one or two years later, we can’t get X-rays on them when they’re running,” said Hooper, who added that he would be reluctant to pass along yet another bill to owners, who already spend a lot of money. But he’s hopeful that people in the industry can arrive at a solution.
Metivier is thankful that New York is one of the more stringent states when it comes to drugs.
“I believe at the level we’re competing here, there’s better horses, there’s better trainers, (and) I don’t believe the better horses are using drugs as an advantage,” Metivier said. “I’d like to believe that’s how it is. The veterinarians I work with -– and I use three or four of them -– nobody I’ve ever worked with would give a horse an illegal substance regardless of what I asked them to do. Subsequently, I can’t believe they’d do it for somebody else.”
Speaking at the Round Table Conference, Edwin Moses, a multiple Olympic gold medal winner and the chairman of the USADA, said that those who worry about “big government” coming in to their sport are misinformed, noting that the USADA is an independent 501 © 3. He also said that horse racing is currently in a situation similar to track and field when he was competing.
“It is because athletes took a stand and demanded that an independent organization be established to create universally applicable rules, and to enforce those rules equally across all sports, that we have USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency,” Moses said. “What we did in the Olympic movement is exactly what many of you are willing to do now.”
Metivier said those calling for “hay, oats and water” to be the only things horses receive are fooling themselves.
“You have to help the horse using therapeutic medication,” Metivier said. “These are professional athletes, they need help. If it’s legal, fine. If it’s illegal, I’ve said throw the book at them.”
Violette said he is confident the bill will not pass, at least this year. But momentum seems to be building for it, with a lot of horse racing’s high-powered groups in favor of it. Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear said the industry shouldn’t stick its head in the sand about how it’s perceived.
“Very simply and very frankly,” Beshear said at the Round Table Conference, “our collective experiences over the past few decades has demonstrated conclusively that individual state racing commissions just can’t get this job done.”