On March 12, eight states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia—pledged to adopt uniform medication rules for racehorses. Facilitated by the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (THA), the program is slated to begin by the end of 2013 and be universally implemented by January 2014.
Uniformity of regulations
“Uniformity is critically important to those states of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast,” says THA Chairman Alan Foreman. “We have 18 racetracks that operate within a 200-mile radius of each other, horses moving interstate, and in some instances horsemen who are racing horses in more than one state. If there is any part of the country where there’s a need for uniformity of regulation, it’s this region.”
Bernard Dowd, DVM, a racetrack practitioner serving at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Parx Racing in Pennsylvania, and Aqueduct Racecourse and Belmont Park in New York, welcomes the simplicity afforded by the new rules. “Sometimes I walk into a barn in the morning with horses going to three states in one day,” Dowd says. “Previously we’d have three different regulatory issues occurring in all three states, so this program is very welcome.”
The catalyst for the agreement was in part a report from the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety (see DVM Newsmagazine, December 2012). “That was essentially a call to arms for the horsemen, who said, ‘We need to implement the recommendations, and we need this to be uniformly done throughout the region,’” says the THA’s Foreman.
Under the agreement, called the Mid Atlantic Uniform Medication and Testing Program, medications are divided into two categories: (1) controlled therapeutic substances and (2) prohibited substances. The 24 therapeutic medications are those that practicing veterinarians, regulatory veterinarians, industry chemists and pharmacologists say are routinely used and necessary to treat illness or injury in horses. Among the organizations consulted were the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
Click here to see the list of 24 permitted medications, along with their withdrawal times and legal thresholds.
Of these 24 therapeutic medications, furosemide is the only one permitted to be given on race day. And it must be administered under controlled circumstances by a veterinarian designated by the state racing commission to perform that service. “This will keep [other] veterinarians out of the stalls on race day, which is a perception problem for the industry,” Foreman says.
All other permitted drugs require a specific withdrawal time prior to race day. And there are some major changes to the way medications have been routinely used and administered at the racetrack. For example, clenbuterol requires a 14-day withdrawal time. Also, no intra¬articular corticosteroid can be administered within seven days of a race. With respect to methyl¬prednisilone acetate, veterinarians and horsemen are strongly warned about its use, and the recommended withdrawal time is at least 21 days. And for systemic corticosteroids such as dexamethasone, the recommendation is 72 hours. Complying with these guidelines will not risk the possibility of a positive drug test.
The AAEP Racing Committee has worked hard to improve racing rules in support of the health and welfare of horses, says Kathleen Anderson, DVM, vice chair of the AAEP Racing Committee and a Maryland practitioner. During the course of those efforts, the need for uniformity of medication rules was apparent. “We felt if we had uniformity, it would close a lot of the loopholes, improve public confidence and perception of racing integrity, and clarify for the owners, trainers and veterinarians what the ground rules were,” Anderson says. “Uniformity thus became a primary objective.”
Anderson believes that the rules governing corticosteroids will help clarify the environment for veterinarians and improve their ability to assess horses going into races. Regarding clenbuterol, though, “there’s a lot of concern among veterinarians that we’re removing from our treatment regimen the opportunity to take care of the respiratory diseases we see in racehorses,” Anderson says. “What these changes may mean is that some horses will either have more rest or proceed forward less than optimally. The latter is a concern to the health of the horse.”
For the other medications on the list, there aren’t major changes to current practice, Anderson says. The rules for tranquilizers may even be an improvement. “It looks as though we’ll be able to go closer [to race day before withdrawal], and I think that’s absolutely fine, because they’re all short-acting medications,” Anderson says. “To be able to sedate a horse for shoeing or for a minor injury we might have to stitch up, it will be useful to have those tranquilizers on hand. Similarly, if a horse has a minor gas colic, we can use a small amount of tranquilizer to treat them without a concern prior to race day while staying within the guidelines.”
The uniform medication rules also help with race planning, Anderson says. “Currently the clenbuterol rule in Pennsylvania is 72 hours and it’s 14 days in New York,” she says. This is problematic when a trainer is planning to race a horse in a Pennsylvania race but for a variety of reasons—the race has not filled, the competition is not what was expected, the weather has affected the racing surface—decides to change to a New York race. “The horse will be ineligible in New York if it has been medicated to comply with the Pennsylvania rules,” Anderson says. “Uniformity among these eight states of close proximity will make those decisions a lot easier.”
Uniform testing, lab accreditation
The agreement also proposes to accredit laboratories to instill uniformity in testing procedures. “That’s a big deal,” Anderson says. “Prior to this agreement, there was a huge amount of variability regarding states’ ability to test for medications. Having uniformity in those procedures will narrow the gap between rules and reality.”
The goal is for all laboratories to test the same drugs at the same levels, Foreman says. This will let horses be treated therapeutically while ensuring that no pharmacologically significant drug residue will be present during a race.
According to the THA, the program will require each participating state to amend its current rules and procedures or enact statutes, depending on how medication is regulated in the state. Regulators have agreed to begin the adoption process immediately, with a uniform implementation date of January 1, 2014. (The abolition of anabolic steroids in racing was implemented in a similar fashion). The THA’s expectation is that by January 1, 2014, all laboratories reporting drug testing in the Mid-Atlantic region will be accredited by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
“The final piece of the puzzle that we’re still working on is new penalty guidelines, particularly focused on repeat offenders—identifying them, penalizing them or routing them out,” Foreman says. “We believe strongly that when the program is implemented—assuming that veterinarians and horsemen adhere to the new system—we will significantly reduce the number of positive tests that we have for the therapeutic substances.”
The AAEP’s Anderson wants to see uniformity not only in the rules but also in the penalties and the enforcement. “It’s one thing to make a set of rules, but if you don’t enforce them, they pretty much become a non-entity,” she says.
Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission, says his organization enthusiastically supports this recent Mid-Atlantic agreement. “Once implemented, we believe this program will enhance the integrity of the sport and create a safer racing environment for all participants throughout the region,” Zanzuccki says.
Virginia Racing Commission veterinarian C. Richard Harden, DVM, says the new agreement “is not going to fill our stands with spectators and build our handle back up, but I think it’s a good step to try to enhance the public perception and image of horseracing that has previously been tarnished.”
Harden envisions this regional development broadening even further. “If the East Coast enacts this agreement, possibly the West Coast will also, which may bring all racing jurisdictions on the same page regarding the use of therapeutic medications in racehorses,” he says.
Dowd says the program is long overdue. “Anything that benefits the industry as a whole is very welcomed, especially the reality and the perception that we’re doing the right thing, which we are,” he says.
Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.