Bisphosphonates — a class of drugs that prevent the bone-density loss —might have some therapeutic value for older racehorses but speakers at the Conference on Equine Welfare and Racing Integrity warned of the potential harm caused by such treatments for young horses such yearlings and 2-year-olds.
That was among the takeaways from Wednesday's Animal Welfare Forum of the Association of Racing Commissioners International's 84th annual conference, being held through Friday at the Hotel Hot Springs. The related discussion included how pari-mutuel racing's regulators might address abuse of bisphosphonates and at what stage should horses come under the jurisdiction of a racing regulatory authority.
ARCI members are the only independent entities recognized by law to license, make and enforce rules and adjudicate matters pertaining to racing.
Dr. Jeff Blea, a Southern California veterinarian who is the past chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and heads its racing committee, called bisphosphonates “a nuclear button right now, not only in the racing industry but in the breeding industry.”
Dr. Lynn Hovda, the Minnesota Racing Commission's equine medical director, said bisphosphonates don't just impact what could be a sore bone or joint, but they go throughout the skeletal system.
Dr. Sue Stover, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said the rational for giving young horses bisphosphonates is to ward off stress fractures, joint problems and some abnormalities. “Ultimately it was just the silver bullet of preventing all these problems,” she said.
However, Stover said that bisphosphonates in young horses actually interfere with the development and growth of bone, reduce bone's ability to heal and makes bone more susceptible to cracks. One study of Israel military recruits showed bisphosphonates did not prevent stress fractures when given before training, she said.
One of her major concerns is that bisphosphonates, as analgesics, have the potential to mask pain.
Conference attendee Carrie Brogden — a breeder and consigner whose Machmer Hall Farm in Paris, Ky., bred champion Tepin — said she and husband Craig do not treat horses with bisphosphonates but that the panel opened her eyes about what could be an industry problem.
“You're talking about horses who may have been treated as yearlings coming down the race pipeline,” she said. “I guess it's a small sample right now. But this is being kind of pushed in Lexington as like the safe cure, not as something to be avoided.”
Blea said taking a page from the British Horseracing Authority's ban on bisphosphonates in race horses under 3 1/2 years old and requiring a 30-day “stand down” from racing “would be a good place to start.” He said the AAEP recently assembled a committee to discuss bisphosphonates and mentioned a talk on the subject that he gave two years ago to several hundred veterinarians.
“I asked, 'How many people are using bisphosphonates in their practice?'” Blea said. “There might have been five or six people raise their hands. After the talk, 25 people came up to me asked me, 'Is there a test for it?'
“The reality is that we don't know enough about it. I've spoken to practitioners who have told me it is rampant in the thoroughbred yearling industry, rampant in the 2-year-old training sales. I know it's being used on the racetrack, though I don't believe it's being used as much on the racetrack as people think. I think it's one of those things that have come and gone.”
But John Campbell, the legendary harness-racing driver who last year retired to become president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society, said the standardbred industry has had “great luck” using bisphosphonates to treat young horses with distal cannon-bone disease with “no adverse affects that I can see.” He noted that thoroughbreds are much more at risk of catastrophic injuries than the gaited standardbreds.
ARCI president Ed Martin urged racing regulators to start working on a model rule as to when jurisdiction over a horse begins, which could allow them to address the concern over bisphosphonates. One of ARCI's missions is to create model rules that provide the member regulatory groups a blueprint for their own laws or legislation dealing with all aspects of horse racing.
“I think it would behoove all of us to work on a model regulatory policy so we have uniformity in terms of when the horse should come under the jurisdiction of the racing commission,” Martin said. “When we talk about out-of-competition testing or questioning the use of certain medications, the first thing somebody is going to say is, 'You don't have jurisdiction over this horse, and you don't regulate the practice of veterinary medicine.'”
Matt Iuliano, The Jockey Club's executive vice president, said that about 75 percent of thoroughbreds will make a start by age 4, leaving a 25-percent “leakage rate.” He suggested a more cost-effective and logical place to put horses under regulatory control is once they have a timed workout, indicating an intent to race. “You've probably taken that 75 percent to 90 percent,” he said.
Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, agreed with starting regularity control with a horse's first published work. He expressed hope for a common-sense rule that would be fair to everyone, while cautioning of bisphosphonates, “There is a lack of facts and research being done. We don't want to go after writing rules just to write rules. Finding out exactly, if there is a concern — and what that concern is — to me is the most important first stage. And then where we're going to attack and fix the problem.”
Identifying risk — and protective — factors in horses
Dr. Scott Palmer, the equine medical director for the New York Gaming Association, discussed identifying risk factors in racing, including those at “boutique” meets such as Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland, with the inherent demands to get owners' horses to those races because of their exceptional purse money and prestige.
Palmer cited some risk factors as being on the “vets” list for an infirmity, not racing at 2, trainer change, switching to a different track's surface and dropping in class. He said protective factors also must be identified.
Palmer said changes that have established themselves as diminishing risks would not all be popular and could require a change in mindset, such as writing fewer cheap claiming races, limiting the claiming purse to twice the value of the horse, consolidating race meets, biosecurity and limiting the number of stalls given the large outfits. He said racetrack safety accreditation by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is important. Also mentioned: continuing education for veterinarians, trainers and assistant trainers, along with increased scrutiny of horses seeking removal from the vets list after a long layoff.
“We're not going to get rid of fixed risk factors, but we can mitigate them,” Palmer said.
Dr. Rick Arthur advises the California Horse Racing Board on equine medication and drug testing, veterinary medicine and the health and safety of horses under CHRB's jurisdiction. After a rash of fatalities in 2016, Del Mar's actions included allowing only horses having timed workouts to be on the track for the first 10 minutes following a renovation break and giving up a week of racing to allow additional time to get the track in shape for the meet after the property was used for the San Diego County Fair
Arthur cited a study that determined horses scratched by a regulatory veterinarian did not race back for 110 days on average, while the average horse ran back in about 40 days.
“The bottom line is we're actually identifying the right horse,” he said of vet scratches. “The real issue is: are we identifying all the horses we should?”
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