At a time when alleged abuses of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids (ABS) are making headlines in many professional and
Olympic sports, questions about their use in horses also are coming to the forefront.
Based on a number of hearings, Congress appears close to legislating a ban on anabolic steroids in horseracing. The Jockey
Club is seeking a crackdown to clean up the integrity of the sport and in recent months more than a dozen state racing jurisdictions
have enacted or are considering controls on ABS in racing horses.
Most are adopting in some fashion the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium's (RMTC) updated model rules on anabolic and
androgenic steroids (ANS), which it considers Class 4 drugs, "comprised primarily of therapeutic medications routinely used
in racehorses. These may influence performance, but generally have a more limited ability to do so."
The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) asked all racing jurisdictions with graded stakes races to begin testing
in January for anabolic steroids.
Meanwhile, Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton, two major Thoroughbred auction sales companies, have adopted the American Association
of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) guideline on the use of ABS in sales horses in Kentucky, "that no exogenous ABS be administered
within 45 days of sale."
The various ABS and ANS drugs include boldenone, stanozolol, nandrolone and testosterone (TES), and "have been employed extensively
in equine practice over the past 25 years," says Larry Soma, VMD, dipl. ACVA, professor of anesthesia and Marylin M. Simpson
professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
"Their usefulness is largely dependent on subjective opinion, as only minimal studies have been carried out in horses," Soma
"As with most things, anabolic steroids are useful when used appropriately," says Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, dipl. ACVS, at
Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington Ky., a member of the AAEP Task Force on Medication Issues at Public Auction.
The AAEP task force guidelines say anabolic steroids "may be therapeutic for normal health care, but should have cleared the
horse's system and should have no detectable level at the time of sale."
"I think they can be valuable in treating some problems, in people and in the horse, but the problem comes with abuse," Bramlage
"I don't think it's appropriate to have any anabolic steroids in the system of a horse when it is presented for sale. I think
you could make a case for not having anabolic steroids on board for any stakes races, and for any filly races. Geldings are
a tougher problem. Castration removes the natural source of anabolic steroids for the training gelding. They sometimes need
it. That makes a case for use — but not for abuse."
Their effects on horses
The purported beneficial effects of ABS in improving racing performance are anecdotal at best, though there is evidence as
to their effects on behavior and reproduction.
"The benefits of the therapeutic use of ABS remain questionable and numerous side effects have been reported," says Soma.
Possible therapeutic value of ABS described in the older veterinary literature include correction of the tissue-depleting
process after systemic disease, malnutrition, parasitism or wasting disease of old age; enhancing tissue repair post-surgery
or injury; and increasing appetite and vigor.
Though veterinarians use them, few modern studies, if any, are available to show that they enhance tissue repair.
"Many veterinarians attest to gains in physical strength, stamina and mental attitude of performance horses," Soma says. "This
is especially true of horses that have gone off feed and have a "stale" or "sour" attitude. The apparent improvement in athletic
performance may be more of a change in behavior and aggressiveness than any specific effects in physiologic para-meters that
"I think the therapeutic value is one that's been around for a period of time," says Kevin Dunlavy, DVM, equine practitioner
at Churchill Downs, Ky., and at the Fairgrounds Racecourse in New Orleans.