Panel questions drugs in horse racing

Performance enhancers tarnish the sport, say congressional panel of veterinarians, jockeys and trainers.
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Jul 01, 2012

Equine practitioners and other professionals told members of the U.S. House of Representatives in April that it’s time for the federal government to regulate the use of drugs in horse racing.

“With the myriad of state and local controls over racing and the various interests, from owners to trainers to racing jurisdictions, there is virtually no way that you’re going to be able to get any kind of consistent rule to control these drugs without some kind of federal legislation,” said Gregory Ferraro, DVM, director of UC Davis’s Center for Equine Health and a member of the panel offering testimony. “While many of us feel that federal rules and regulations are something we want to keep out of our sport, I think in this instance, there is just no way to manage this without it.”

Ferraro and others spoke April 30 before the members of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in Kennett Square, Pa. Representatives are considering the creation of a national body to enforce the rules of racing and to standardize regulations.

In his opening statement, Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, noted that according to The New York Times, trainers have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times since 2009, a figure that understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are actually tested.

“Illegal doping often occurs on private farms before horses are shipped to the track. Few states can legally test horses there,” Pitts said. “We’re considering the need for a national set of uniform rules to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

Panelist Kathryn Papp, DVM, of Hillcrest Meadow Equine Services in Harrisburg, Pa., stated that overuse and abuse of medication is rampant at racetracks and training centers.

“The abuse is not limited to just performance-enhancing drugs. It encompasses all substances that our trainers think may improve their horses’ performance,” Papp said.

Overused medications include antibiotics, corticosteroids, NSAIDs, hormones, calmative agents, hypersensitizing agents and respiratory aids, Papp said. “These substances are not just being used inappropriately around race time,” she said. “They are employed during training and the time leading up to races. I cannot tell you how many barns I know that train every one of their horses on phenylbutazone daily whether they need it or not.”

And it’s not just trainers to blame, Papp says. “It is not uncommon for me to see, on race day, a practitioner enter a stall in one of the private barns or the detention barn with three to ten syringes full of medication.”

Singling out the problem drugs

Most of the panel members made little distinction between therapeutic medications and what they called “drugging, doping or performance-enhancing drugs.” Only furosemide can legally be administered on race day. With phenylbutazone, there are limitations to the amount that can be given prior to race day, and a limited tested amount that can be in the horse’s bloodstream (2 to 5 µg, depending on the racing jurisdiction).

Many of those at the hearing expressed concern that the public view of horse racing has been tarnished by the overuse and abuse of drugs like phenylbutazone and furosemide.

“Does the public know that horses are drugged and therefore conclude no level playing field exists in the horse racing industry?” asked Pitts. “That is my belief,” replied Gary Stevens, a Racing Hall of Fame jockey who was a member of the panel.

• Furosemide. Papp singled out furosemide as a “Band-aid” that masks symptoms and the true fitness of undrugged thoroughbred horses. And the side effects are pernicious, she said.

“Furosemide dehydrates the horse. It decreases the circulating blood volume … (and) decreases the blood pressure in the lungs,” she said. “We need a phase-out of furosemide, because there are much more useful medications, like interferon-alpha. There are other options that are healthier.”

Panel members offered medical evidence of furosemide’s performance enhancement. Thoroughbred owner George Strawbridge Jr. of Cochranville, Pa., pointed to two studies in 1998 and 1999 concluding that furosemide delayed the onset of fatigue and increased the oxygen going to muscles.

Papp noted that a recent study found that furosemide increased horses’ hematocrit from 10 percent to 18 percent, which would be considered “blood doping.” She acknowledged that furosemide can help reduce the risk of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). However, because of the extreme increase in hematocrit, the drug is “performance-enhancing, not solely a preventive for EIPH.”

Both panel veterinarians, Papp and Ferraro, believe that the use of performance-enhancing drugs has weakened the fitness of U.S. thoroughbreds.

“Look at the horses in Europe,” Ferraro said. “They are much better than ours now. The offspring of these stallions are much better racehorses, and I believe that we’ve done a detriment to the breed (by overusing these drugs).”

Not noted by any members of the panel nor by Congress members was that though racehorses around the world are not administered furosemide on race day, with the exception of Hong Kong, they train on furosemide.

• “Bute.” Papp also turned her sights on phenylbutazone. “Bute” is hardly a performance enhancer, she argued, but it’s overused because it’s legal.

“There is no horse that is going to go from lame to sound on the amount of ‘bute’ that is allowed to be left in their system at the time of racing,” Papp noted. “It’s just because it is allowed to be used that everybody uses it. It has GI and kidney side effects. I don’t think the level of bute is harming horses or covering up anything, but because it’s legal, it is being abused.”

Hiding injuries

In addition to side effects and unfair advantages, overuse and abuse of drugs may be masking the presence of more dangerous drugs or hiding existing injury or lameness, panelists said, though for the most part no scientific evidence was discussed at the hearing to support these claims.

“There are numerous drugs that are non-detectable,” said Strawbridge. “They are definitely ‘performance-enhancing.’ They cover up pain. There are muscle relaxers. There is evidence of blood-doping to increase the oxygen supply to the muscle.”

Papp agreed that eliminating pain in thoroughbreds puts horses and jockeys at risk. “Pain is a protective mechanism that allows these athletes to protect and save themselves in certain circumstances. Horses, especially thoroughbreds, will under every circumstance do anything necessary to remain upright and not fall and injure their rides,” she said. “However, this protective mechanism is nullified when doping occurs, and thus our riders and jockeys incur a significantly greater risk of injury or even death (when such drugs are used).”

Papp argued as well that corticosteroids are given too freely and too often with unfortunate side effects. “For horses that have inflammation in joints and in other parts of their bodies, we would administer cortico­steroids at a reasonable dose, at a reasonable time, with an appropriate diagnosis,” Papp explained. “Usually we’re talking about injection into joints of corticosteroids. The down side of these is immune suppression and decreased bone density. We’re seeing a lot of breakdowns directly related to a lot of corticosteroid use.”

Federal oversight requested

Trainer Ken McPeek, a member of the panel, denied that performance-enhancing drugs and illegal doping was as common as some other panelists suggested, but he still stood by the idea of federal oversight.

“My reason for supporting a Horse Racing Improvement Act is standardized rules, licensing and medication,” McPeek said. “It would be wonderful to have uniform rules nationally, though I have concerns that the focus (of the legislation) is too narrow in its agenda. Doping seems to be the focus here and it is important to address, but the occurrences are very rare. ... I believe in many cases (violations) are due to poor management, metabolism variation in individual horses and possibly environmental factors, not necessarily cheating and doping.

“Medication overuse is not the sole cause of breakdowns,” McPeek continued. “There are many factors, including track surface. I’m not sure you’re going to completely eliminate the problem because injuries are unavoidable in all sports.”

Watching the public

All medicine and complicated treatment and testing issues aside, the public image of horse racing has to be considered, according to Ferraro.

“I can tell you without a doubt, whether we believe medication is good or bad for the horse, whether we can make the distinction between therapeutic medications and doping, the general public cannot,” he said. “They are overwhelmingly against any kind of use of drugs in horseracing.

“My general feeling about this is that if we continue to allow the use of drugs in horseracing, ... we will eventually lose our fan base and destroy the sport. Based on my previous experience on the racetrack, I understand the opposition to banning drugs such as furosemide and phenylbutazone. I was one of the original proponents when those drugs were originally allowed. It has not served the industry well. It has not served the horses well.”