The racing industry isn't exactly known for having an atmosphere of cooperation. The conflicts within the sport stack up fast after a quick glance at the headlines.
Change is on the horizon in at least one area, though—drug regulation. Officials are coming together around the Mid-Atlantic Uniform Medication Program, an initiative promoted by the Racing Medication Testing Consortium to revolutionize the way the sport handles medications and penalties for violations.
According to program organizer Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the initiative has been in the works for several years. Foreman, a Maryland-based attorney, says that the eight Mid-Atlantic states have historically tried to work together to keep as many regulations as possible the same across the region. Foreman says the cooperation that is important on a circuit where many trainers have horses starting in multiple states in the span of the same week.
“We're kind of used to it in the region because of the interaction that we have, talking about what's going on and working through problems and issues,” said Foreman. “It works in the Mid-Atlantic just because of the geography, the nature of the business here, the interstate movement of the horsemen.”
Differences in recommended withdrawal times and overage levels have been a complaint of horsemen for many years, and Mid-Atlantic officials were beginning to sift through information from veterinary experts for their own set of standards when the RMTC asked them to wait until the changes could be packaged into a broader program.
The result was a four-part approach which includes a list of 24 therapeutic drugs that are permitted in racing horses (although not on race day); third-party administration of race-day Lasix by a state veterinarian; a laboratory accreditation program to keep testing consistent; and a point system of penalties for violators of those parameters. (Foreman stressed that the 24 therapeutic medications permitted for use in racehorses are not intended to be used all at once on the same horse—rather, officials worked with veterinarians to create a “toolbox” of options for the treatment of illness or injury.)
The program has been approved by at least ten states including California; racing officials in Kentucky, West Virginia, and New Jersey have recommended adoption of the rules pending review by the legislature, and New York officials are considering the standards.
“The industry has been asking for many years for uniformity. The horsemen want it, the veterinarians want it, regulators want it—everybody benefits,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “This initiative appears to offer that opportunity, at least for this core group of 24 therapeutic medications, and that would be a foundation upon which to build going forward.”
One of the latest groups to come on board is the National Steeplechase Association, which oversees licensing and regulation of 32 race meets across the country. NSA Director of Racing Bill Gallo said that adoption of the rules was a no-brainer.
“There's a common misconception that we're a different breed—we're not,” said Gallo. “We represent Thoroughbreds that race over fences … many horses go back and forth [to flat racing]. This medication guideline policy is important to us, because we want to be recognized as being a part of the industry.”
Implementing the program does not come without complications, however. Gallo reported that since many steeplechase horses ship in to a meet the day of the race, trainers will have to organize vans earlier so competitors can be on-site in time to receive state-administered Lasix.
In Kentucky and New York, Standardbred groups have fought hard against the implementation of rules that mandate stricter withdrawal times and threshold levels for clenbuertol and corticosteroids. Because harness horses start more frequently than Thoroughbreds, horsemen say they will be unable to use the medications at all. Fans have also voiced concerns about whether the 24-medication list leaves too much room for manipulation.
“I think it's taken compromise from everybody involved,” Scollay said. “The thresholds and withdrawal times were developed by the RMTC and in some cases they are more restrictive than what we have now, and in some cases they are more permissive. I think in a perfect world, each jurisdiction would have the opportunity to tweak them according to their perspective … and the reality is that once you start tweaking them, you blow up the benefit of uniformity.”
Foreman attended a meeting between state racing officials on Jan. 30, where the group decided that even if the reform doesn't become the national standard, the Mid-Atlantic region will stick to the rules that originated there. He remains hopeful however, that the program will eventually become nationwide—it just may take some time.
“We had 40 people there yesterday, and someone made the observation that there is nowhere in the United States where a group of regulators like this from so many states are sitting at a table, working together in a common program … it really is almost unprecedented,” Foreman said.
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