The Breeders’ Cup Forum: RMTC Chairman Dr. Robert (Bobby) Lewis
Dr. Robert (Bobby) Lewis is chairman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, formed in 2000 by a broad spectrum of horse industry organizations representing different breeds, racing associations, owners and breeders, and regulators. The RMTC’s mission is to develop and promote uniform rules, policies and testing standards at the national level, coordinate research and educational programs that seek to ensure the integrity of racing and the health and welfare of horses and participants, and protect the interests of the racing public.
Lewis graduated from the first veterinary class at Louisiana State University in 1977 and has practiced at Elgin Veterinary Hospital in Texas his entire career. He has served on numerous boards and is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
Where has the RMTC had the biggest impact on racing medication rules?
One of the primary goals of RMTC, since its inception, has been to promote a move toward uniformity in medication rules, drug testing, enforcement and security at racetracks. In general, there has been progress in this direction, although it is far from complete.
One area where near total success was achieved has been regulation of anabolic steroids, with the RMTC model rule having been adopted in 32 of 34 states currently conducting pari-mutuel horse racing. That represents 99.98% of the total Thoroughbred handle.
Other important RMTC model rule recommendations that have been adopted by RCI include policies on therapeutic medications (which has seen adoption progress started or completed in 31 of 34 states), out-of-competition drug testing, more severe uniform penalties for the use of prohibited drugs and practices, the administration of furosemide and adjunct bleeder medications, and NSAID thresholds.
Our model rule on phenylbutazone, which lowered the recommended threshold from 5 micrograms per mL to 2 micrograms per mL, has been adopted for all races in eight states, in stakes races in six states, and is under review in five other states. This regulation is a critical first step to ensure that NSAID levels do not compromise pre-race examinations and, therefore, the safety of our human and equine athletes during a race.
What are the organization’s current priorities, from a regulatory/policy standpoint?
As years of dedicated work on determining threshold and withdrawal guidelines on therapeutic medications is nearing completion, the lion’s share of research involving commonly used therapeutic medications is either complete or on the verge of completion.
Recognizing that, the RMTC board has agreed that future research efforts should primarily be directed toward those substances which pose an immediate threat to the racing industry. So, our policies going forward will focus on setting regulations that enable us to better control the use of those substances.
Obviously, a large part of this effort will be penalty and drug classification reform. It has always been part of our mission to acquire and analyze unknown substances to develop information on new threats to the integrity of racing, and that work will continue.
There are three research and regulatory priorities for the RMTC board going forward.
One is the advancement of the RMTC Drug Testing Initiatives Task Force (DTI), which aims to institute national minimum standards and best practices for drug testing laboratories and implement a laboratory ISO and RMTC accreditation program and an independent Equine Quality Assurance Program. A second is tactical research, including identification of emerging threats, within the constraints of the budget. The third priority is the continuation of medication classification and a penalty guidelines overhaul.
Isn’t the goal of true uniformity in medication rules really just a dream that can’t be achieved given the current regulatory structure?
The RMTC has worked diligently on a uniform medication policy since its inception. Our board examines the best available science to develop model rule language that can then be adopted by each individual commission. This is an admittedly slow process, but we’ve seen successful uniform adoption efforts (or nearly uniform efforts) in the past. The swift adoption of the RMTC/RCI Model Rule on Androgenic Anabolic Steroids is a great example of that.
Achieving uniformity is possible if the industry truly wants it. The current national model of 38 separate racing jurisdictions creates a significant challenge, and this can only be overcome in the current structure at the local/state level. Those who wish to achieve this have to work within their jurisdictions to persuade all parties of the benefits of adopting RCI model rules.
Why is it so difficult to get different states on board in support of model rules?
There are several reasons. The process for adopting rules varies from state to state and can be quite lengthy, depending on the number of steps a state must go through to adopt rules of any sort. Funding inadequacies are certainly an issue, particularly in the current economic climate. Local horse industry groups in some states simply want to maintain the status quo, apparently satisfied with their current racing product. Historically, there has always been resistance to change in our industry.
How good are our testing labs at detecting new, synthetic PEDs? Are states freezing samples in much the same way it’s being done in human athletics to catch the cheaters?
In short, I would answer that our testing labs are better at this than many realize. The challenge of responding to new threats to racing from performance-enhancing drugs is one of the highest priorities of testing laboratories.
They rely on information from a variety of sources and the expertise of their scientific staff to keep up to date on new drug discoveries and to add drugs with the potential to alter performance to the testing menu.
In some cases, it is a simple matter to add a drug to their library, and in other cases, it is necessary to devote considerable resources to developing and validating a method specific for a new substance.
ITPP is an example of a substance that was recognized as a potential PED that did not fit into routine testing schemes, and that required a new test method specific for it. Zilpaterol, on the other hand, is a substance that was added to the routine test menu before it was approved for use in the U.S.
The challenge is in determining which substances are available and being used in an effort to affect performance and to differentiate them from those that are merely rumored to be used. With finite resources to develop new methods, a decision to develop a new method for a substance that is not being used or that poses no real threat to racing diverts resources from more deserving projects.
A number of racing commissions have mandated storage of samples for extended periods of time after the initial test period, to permit reanalysis in the event that a test for a new drug or an improved test for a drug has been developed. Thanks to a grant from The Jockey Club, the California Horse Racing Board has retroactively tested a large group of samples (at least 2,000) for growth hormone, and has used this form of testing in individual cases in special circumstances. Furthermore, some of the more advanced LC-MS systems that rely on high resolution mass analysis store data that can be mined for new substances retrospectively. This latter approach allows very efficient and cost-effective testing for new substances even if the original sample has been discarded.
Do you see any value in federal legislation that would establish medication guidelines? If Congress were willing to work with the industry, wouldn’t that be a more effective way to accomplish your mission?
In recent years, it appears that more stakeholders in our industry are calling for federal oversight. Arguments against this appear to be based on the concern that federal oversight may not be limited strictly to medication use. RMTC has no position on this subject; we will continue to work within the existing regulatory framework.
Your board seems to have two clearly different camps: Those who want to get rid of race-day medication, including furosemide, and those who don’t. Where is RMTC heading on that issue?
RMTC is a consortium representing a broad cross-section of our industry, so it is only reasonable to expect that individual feelings on this subject vary among board members. RMTC model rules, as adopted by RCI, recognize the current reality of the approved use of furosemide on raceday in all jurisdictions.
Controversy over this practice has existed for many years, yet came to the forefront in 2011. RMTC, working with NTRA and AAEP, organized and sponsored the 2011 International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH and the Racehorse at Belmont Park.
At our board meeting following that conference, RMTC recommended a model rule that requires that furosemide only be administered on race day by regulatory veterinarians or their designees, and that adjunct bleeder medications be prohibited – a rule which has since been adopted by the RCI.
The RMTC will continue to monitor and study this issue, and stands ready to assist the industry in formulating rules and policies to support whatever change the industry decides upon.
Does public perception have any influence on RMTC policies and model rules, or are decisions and guidelines based strictly on science?
The RMTC was founded as, and remains, a scientific- and education-oriented organization. Recommendations are proposed by our Scientific Advisory Committee, which consists of expert racing chemists and veterinarians, and are then presented to the RMTC board for approval.
The RMTC Scientific Advisory Committee is charged with analyzing scientific data and coming to a consensus based on that information. It has not been my observation that public perception influences decisions of the RMTC board, but rather they attempt to create consensus and recommend changes they perceive as achievable within the current regulatory framework.
Jamie Haydon is assisting RMTC on an interim basis. What is the timetable for naming a permanent executive director?
We have a target date to decide on a candidate no later than the end of June.