Horse Racing Regulators’ Whack-A-Mole Challenge

by | 04.23.2015 | 6:07pm
A full house for the lab directors round table at the RCI convention
A full house for the lab directors round table at the RCI convention

Spent a few days at the 81st annual convention of the Association of Racing Commissioners International at Tampa, Fla. You'd think after 80 years they'd have this “regulating the horse and dog racing industries” thing figured out.

Not necessarily so. But, as I learned in watching committee meetings and panel discussions of the RCI convention and the annual meeting of the Association of Official Racing Chemists, it's not an easy job.

Let's get the news out of the way first.

–The RCI's Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee moved to recommend regulations on cobalt that are similar to those approved by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium last month: levels of 25 to 50 parts per billion (ppb) will result in a warning letter to the trainer; levels higher than 50 will subject a trainer to Category B penalties, usually resulting in loss of purse, plus a fine and suspension. Where the RCI committee deviated from RMTC was approval of a 10-year suspension of a trainer whose horse tests higher than 300 ppb for cobalt.

Cobalt has been proven to be a blood-doping agent in humans, but there is no scientific studies confirming similar properties in horses. That's why several committee members voted against this recommendation.

The regulation now goes to the RCI's Model Rules Committee, which is expected to meet in July. After that it's up to individual states to adopt the rules. Currently, only Indiana has regulations in place for cobalt in Thoroughbreds.

–The same RCI committee deferred taking action on approving threshold levels for amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has a calming affect on horses and is found in a supplement called Carolina Gold that some horsemen give illegally on race day.

The RMTC approved a 110 ppb threshold for GABA. The RCI's newly created Scientific Advisory Committee – seen by some as an effort to undermine RMTC – was divided on the threshold level and did not make a recommendation. Some on the Scientific Advisory Committee wanted a threshold of 190.

–Mark H. Lamberth, a member of the Arkansas Racing Commission, has been elected the new chairman of RCI, taking over from John Ward, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Panel discussions were illuminating. An Equine Welfare Roundtable, “View From the Trenches: What We're Seeing on the Backstretch,” showcased some of the unlabeled junk being peddled by compounding pharmacies and used by trainers and/or veterinarians. RMTC executive director Dr. Dionne Benson showed commissioners a number of unlabeled products, including one unmarked vial that was tested and confirmed positive for a liquid synthetic marijuana.

Another presentation, by Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay (who did not attend but appeared by video), said that she learned in looking at “unfiltered” testing results that at a track with low purses and less use of therapeutic medications there were fewer breakdowns than at a track with higher purses and more widespread use of therapeutic medications. Some trainers at these higher-class tracks, Scollay said, are using a broad array of legal drugs and may be unable to tell when their horses are unsound.

Dr. Kathleen Anderson, who practices at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland and is president-elect of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, talked about the role of veterinarians and mentioned specifically that 10-15 percent of the many horses she scopes every year suffer some form of Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage. Anderson said the AAEP will continue to support the use of the race-day medication furosemide, or Lasix, to treat EIPH, until there is another alternative.

However, when asked after her presentation why nearly 100 percent of horses are prescribed Lasix if only 15-20 percent are bleeders, Anderson could only say trainers want a “level playing field.” Anderson also acknowledged that the AAEP, which has members from every racing country, was at odds with other similar organizations such as the British Equine Veterinary Association, which does not support the use of race-day Lasix.

Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of California-Davis laboratory provided information on hair sample drug testing. Currently, Stanley said, Davis tests hair for Kentucky auction companies and Los Alamitos. He estimated costs at $300-$400 per sample but said it will get “cheaper, faster, better.” Stanley does not envision hair testing replacing blood and urine testing but acting as complementary testing and will be especially useful in screening out-of-competition samples. The timeline for detection of illegal drugs, he said, is “months, not days.” Hair testing can be used to detect anabolic and corticosteroids, B2 agonist derugs like clenbuterol, selective SARMS, proteins and peptides.

The most sobering panel was a Lab Directors Roundtable in which Stanley, Terrance Wan of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Mary Robinson of the University of Pennsylvania, and Clive Pearce of LGC Group spoke.

Terrance Wan

Terrance Wan of Hong Kong Jockey Club

Stanley and Robinson said funding and resources are the biggest problem they face in trying to keep up with the cheaters, Pearce said the new protein and peptide drugs are a major challenge because of the difficulty of developing target analysis for the molecules they contain.

“Peptides are easily synthesized and very potent,” said Stanley, who said one of the big challenges is getting samples of the latest drugs so tests can be developed.

Wan wondered if racing has come to the point where it should stop using so many of its resources testing for levels of therapeutic drugs and focus more on the illegal performance-enhancers.

“Our job is getting more difficult every day,” said Wan. “There is a gap between what we can detect and what is available out there, and it is widening.”

Drug detection is a bit like a game of Whack-a-Mole. By the time, the RCI or regulators act on a substance like cobalt, for example, unethical vets and horsemen will have moved on to the next new thing. Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, said during the discussion on cobalt that unannounced testing found average levels of cobalt of 18.8 ppb. Once horsemen knew about cobalt testing, Palmer said, average levels fell to 0.5 ppb.

Being a racing regulator is a difficult and often thankless job.

  • David

    Note: “Another presentation, by Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay (who did not attend but appeared by video), said that she learned in looking at “unfiltered” testing results that at tracks with low purses had fewer breakdowns because of the limited use of therapeutic medications vs. a track with higher purses and more widespread use of legal therapeutic medications. Some trainers at these higher-class tracks, Scollay said, are using a broad array of legal drugs and unable to tell when their horses are unsound.”

  • Bill O’Gorman

    Some interesting statements made by contributors. Upon legal medications, Dr. Scollay remarked that “some trainers at these higher class tracks are using a broad array of legal drugs and may be unable to tell if their horses are unsound”., and Dr. Anderson, specifically stated that “10-15% of the many horses she scopes suffer some form of EIPH”; when questioned she could only say that trainers [of unaffected animals] used Lasix because they wanted a level playing field. If Dr. Scollay’s assertion that casualty rates appeared lower at lesser tracks which tended to a lower per capita medicinal spend – despite presumably a less expensive and often older horse population – is correct then it doesn’t say much for the trainers on the premier tracks or for their advisers – or for their supporters.. The most fashionable trainers, cheered on by the veterinary industry, have for years promulgated the myth that the Thoroughbred is increasingly fragile. This conveniently excuses everyone involved when breakdowns do occur – and the pill is often sugared by the ludicrous assertion that ” the good ones are most at risk because they are faster and try harder”.

    • Needles

      Thoroughbreds of today are more fragile than they used to be be. That is not a myth, check the stats on starts per horse, etc. Now, the point could be made that Lasix and Bute and their effects on bone health could be a big reason for the more fragile throughbred of today rather than evolution, bad racing surfaces, etc.

      • Bill O’Gorman

        Or the point could be made that if you run a car after disabling all the warning gauges you cannot expect it to last as long as if you had those gauges to help you. I think that the remarks made by Drs Scollay and Anderson seemed to describe an over-enthusiasm for medical intervention, and that Dr. Scollay raised a very pertinent issue regarding the horses with the most expensive trainers – the trainers that seem most likely to be generally accepted as masters of their craft.

        • Ben van den Brink

          Using 17 or 20 legal medications in a very short time span is just about complete insane. The horse is not designed to be a waste factory.

    • Michael Castellano

      “The most fashionable trainers, cheered on by the veterinary industry,
      have for years promulgated the myth that the Thoroughbred is
      increasingly fragile.”

      I think the evidence that horses today are more fragile is pretty strong. I have been following racing since the 1960s, and I think there is pretty good evidence if you look at the average number of starts a horse makes in its career. Even if you exclude the graded animals, which might make less starts partly because of the big purses today and retirement for stud or breeding purposes, the average animal makes less starts every year that passes. The number of career starts has been declining for the last 120 years. DRF puts out a book of famous horses of the 20th century, and you can see the decline in stark detail there. Horses from the 1920s, even the better ones, regularly raced 50 – 100 times in a career on tracks that were much worse in condition. Today the average is as low as 10 – 15.

      • Bill O’Gorman

        As long as trainers and vets keep up current practices we’ll never know: I thought that could reasonably be inferred from Dr. Scollay’s remarks, as she stated that the more desirable – and often better conformed – horses tended towards earlier breakdown despite more medical intervention. I don’t think there’s much point in going back to the 1920s – ” the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”.

        • Michael Castellano

          I don’t doubt that over medication plays a role. But they do breed horses primarily on speed figures and how they do in major races, which have been dramatically shortened over the years. Soundness and stamina plays a lesser role. Bleeders probably also slip through into the breeder’s shed with the use of race day Lasix. They also will breed stallions that are retired due to injury that have only raced 10 time or less, as long as they won a big race or two. Same with the sales, they make the two year olds run at maximum speed. I saw one the other day that ran 9:45 for a furlong. That’s 47 mph for 1/8 of a mile or a mile in 1:17 if they could keep it up! I wonder what harm is done by racing them so fast?

          • betterthannothing

            Drugs, speed, money hurt horses.

          • Bill O’Gorman

            Mismanagement is being overlooked and the increased fragility myth rolls on. I doubt that anyone breeds horses primarily upon speed figures. If the major races are shortened it’s probably because the same voices that peddle the fragility and Lasix story want a programme that can be contested off minimal training. If you do want to refer to the distant past, then do some research. Those horses ran often because they were fit: in fact they ran a lot because they ran a lot [see Calumet under the Jones’s]. A fit thoroughbred is an extremely resilient animal. We have the same sort of lobbyists over here – although, as it happens, here they are currently campaigning for longer races – ostensibly “for the good of the breed” but in reality to protect a cabal of high end owners, trainers and breeders and to further discourage any threat from less well armed trainers lower down the food chain.

          • Ben van den Brink

            The kid gloved raised and trained TB,s, very over medicated as well, can not making much starts. Therefore the whole system has to be redesigned.

  • Needles

    Excellent coverage by Ray as always. This conference tells me that there has never been a greater need for USADA to take over all testing for parimutuel tracks in the United States.

  • Guest

    NJ, PA, MD at one time (over 20 years ago) required all horses receiving lasix to be stabled in a detention barn at least 4 hours out. The lasix was administered under the supervision of security. The detention barn substantially reduced the amount of tampering that occurred pre-race. Over time the horsemen’s groups were able to negotiate out of this practice. The track owners were happy to comply as they saved substantial sums by not having to clean 60-70 stalls after a race day. The practice of placing all horses competing on race day in one barn under security must be reinstated if the industry is to get at least some control over the administration of illegal medication

  • DeniseSteffanus

    I used the term “Whac-a-mole” in the lead to my cobalt story in TRAINER magazine. “Catching cheaters is like playing Whac-A-Mole. Regulators smack one here, and another turns up there.” Now everyone seems to be using it. I guess I should be flattered.

    • johnnyknj

      Want credit for “needle in a haystack” too? BTW, good article.

    • SteveG

      The one who should be flattered is the fellow who invented the game as the name of his game has crossed-over into popular speech as a metaphor for futility in action.

  • betterthannothing

    I am glad that those grave issues are being openly discussed. Unfortunately, chasing after the drugs that serial abusers and dopers use to win races and dump spent and injured horses while racing continues to tolerate those abusers and dopers, guarantees that the abuse will not stop and the chase will not end especially with the weak weapons being used against them.

  • Bill O’Gorman

    Let’s break this symposium down into it’s component parts. [1]Dr. Scollay at least implies that the most expensive trainers are besotted with medical intervention which is having negative consequences on their breakdown %s. [2]Dr. Anderson states that the majority of horses are given Lasix without any demonstrable need for it. [3] Dr. Stanley admitted that the testers were always liable to be playing catch up with the dopers. [1] and [2] are the foolish, if predictable, result of the “increasing fragility of racehorses” which are widely peddled. [3] is at least partly exacerbated by the fact that the first two serve to confuse the issue. Unless the undergrowth that is choking the plants is cleared there will always be the risk of snakes, but the odd thing is that so many people are keen to maintain the undergrowth even when it is choking their own plants.

  • youcantmakeitup

    These conventions,symposiums meetings etc are no more than a lot of noise . They remind me of the same old commissions that are formed in Washington. True reform and change hardly happens. Therapeutic meds are abused in what they call stacking. A little of this and a little of that gets the desired effect which equates to abuse. And I wish people would stop comparing horses to the human athlete because one has a choice and the other doesn’t. Horse racing might be compared to cock fighting or dog fighting some day because there are similarities in all three. No regulation, rampant medication abuse and the animal has no say in the matter.

    • Bill O’Gorman

      Perhaps they are “no more than a lot of noise” because even when they propose that routine, presumably well meaning, interventions seem to be counterproductive [as Dr. Scollay does], or that most horses should not receive Lasix [Dr. Anderson], no-one wants to face that uncomfortable reality. See Matthew: 8: 32!!

    • Concerned Observer

      Yes…and thanks for the noise. 34 state fiefdoms where decisions are made in the dark by uninformed and unqualified regulators has not worked out too well. So lets hope these folks keep on making noise.

  • Ben van den Brink

    Ray and his staff are about the only ones, which place these kind of stuff. Bloodhorse ,drf etc refusing to take part in this. Dependency on med,s.

  • betterthannothing

    “…the AAEP will continue to support the use of the race-day
    medication furosemide, or Lasix, to treat EIPH, until there is another
    alternative.”

    News flash to AAEP: There is another alternative available right now, drug-less racing like in all other top racing countries in the world. A BIG threat to the equine vet industry, its Siamese twin, the pharmaceutical industry and AAEP.

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