Thomas: A Tragedy That Could Have Been Avoided

by | 06.24.2014 | 7:09pm
Unknown Road, a promising son of Bernardini, had his life cut short after allegedly being administered a tainted compounded medication

There must be a thousand and one ways to eliminate fans and owners from the Thoroughbred industry. One of the most unconscionable of those scenarios has happened to my partner, Dennis Narlinger, of JMJ Racing Stables.

JMJ Racing Stables is a huge participant in the Thoroughbred game. They are my partners in Sequel Stallions New York, the premier stallion farm in the state. They are breeders. They are racers. They are buyers. They support their horses and their stallions. A person couldn't ask for a better associate.

Just as one example of their support, they purchased a colt by our stallion, Freud, at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton New York Preferred Sale for $100,000. Excited about their prospect, they named this promising colt Free Association, a good name for a stakes winner. Woefully, however, this story does not have a happy ending.

JMJ Racing stables has filed a lawsuit against Wickliffe Veterinary Pharmacy alleging that with careless disregard for the health and welfare of the horses and the people who take care of the horses, Wickliffe ignored a warning from the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Lab prior to April 1 when two horses in Kentucky died from an improperly formulated and toxic compound in March. Allegedly, they shipped the same improperly compounded medicine to Ocala, Fla., where the poisonous overdoses were given to Mr. Narlinger's horses on May 5.

Free Association along with seven other racehorses in Ocala were allegedly administered the compounded medication provided by Wickliffe Veterinary Pharmacy. It took four hours for Free Association to die after seizing and throwing himself repeatedly on the ground as veterinarians and staff tried futilely to save him.

JMJ Racing Stables is alleging in its lawsuit that this medication ultimately will be confirmed by the FDA to be the cause of death. JMJ Racing Stables owned four of the eight horses affected in Ocala. One of them, Unknown Road, was named by Thoroughbred Daily News a TDN Rising Star. The son of Bernardini had won his second start by nearly 12 lengths.

This horse has since died an extremely painful death secondary to laminitis, resulting from huge volumes of medication given to counteract the seizures caused by toxic medication, once again purported to be the same medication supplied by Wickliffe. His value could have been phenomenal. The other two are a New York-bred that was just about to be sent to the races and a homebred out of one of Dennis Narlinger's favorite stakes-winning mares, Sunday Geisha. Although they are recovering, their racing careers are doubtful.

No one can blame Dennis Narlinger for being upset about this situation. But what is absolutely deplorable and inexcusable is that this didn't have to happen!

The lawsuit asserts that no one in the veterinary community was notified of any misformulation in the compound. No one knew to be on the lookout. There was no announcement to even a possibility of an improper calculation. An FDA alert was posted on May 15 and they are currently investigating these adverse events.

The equine community needs to be able to trust the pharmacies that provide our medicine. If these accusations are affirmed, Wickliffe Veterinary Pharmacy left us exposed to this catastrophy, in my opinion, because of greediness and trying not to damage their own company.

In his final Op/Ed in the Thoroughbred Daily News on Nov. 5, 2012, on his way out of the business, former leading commercial breeder Rob Whiteley warned, “There are two types of people in the business: stakeholders and those who make a living off of stakeholders. And within each group, there are two more groups: those who actively work to improve the industry and those who operate from narrowly focused, selfish interests without regard for the long-term welfare of the business or our sport. Too few participants understand the necessity of working cooperatively, pro-actively and with a shared vision to help grow the business for everyone.”

Mr. Whiteley could not have been more on point. We can't let this sort of thing happen. We just can't afford to lose more of the good guys!

Becky Thomas was New York Breeder of the Year in 2008 and owns Sequel Stallions in Hudson, N.Y.

  • mike

    Ok – this article begs the question – what was the compound and what was the reason it was being given? Journalism 101.

    • betterthannothing

      5/13/2014 – Paulick Report:

      “According to a report by LEX 18 News, Wickliffe Pharmacy is
      under investigation after two horses in Florida died after being given
      the medication to treat Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM). Six
      other horses there are very sick. The medication, which combines the
      drugs Toltrazuril and Pyrimethamine, was compounded at Wickliffe.”

  • mike

    I know the vet involved he is very good – but in Florida I have noticed they are very quick to suspect EPM when many times it is hard to diagnose.

  • Hamish

    Either federally regulate vet compounding pharmacies or shut them down. It is a simple solution. Too much “stuff” being manufactured to beat ourt post race testing system by these chemists and labs, the research which is often funded by the horse miscreants. Follow the money, who is paying whom to do what.

    • jrstark

      You can’t just shut them down, they are needed. The major manufacturers can’t make all the dosages/formats/flavors needed. Compounding pharmacies take legal drugs and format them in different ways: for example, a liquid tuna-flavored version for cats. Some dosages are very specific, you can’t just cut a pill in half or more. They need to be weighed out exactly, which is what the pharmacies do. Compounding pharmacies are not just for human and horse medicines, they are used by all veterinarians.

  • Sarah

    It is a bad deal. But why is no one saying wait a minute… 4 horses owned by the same owner being treated for EPM? Does this guy really think he’s that unlucky to have 4 neurological two year olds? Or is he aware that most likely his horses were being treated with EPM meds for its purported muscle building effects. A big trend in two year old market. Well, there’s side effects to every medication. Obviously no one expects this. But there’s a reason the compounded stuff if cheaper than Marquis. And there’s a bigger reason not to medicate unnecessarily.

    • shakeyoudown

      I high percentage of all race horses have EPM. It is common practice to treat for this disorder as a precaution just as you would with ulcer medication. If it was compounded properly this would never have happened.

      • circusticket

        There’s no such thing as a racehorse with EPM. You can’t race if you have EPM. Where did you get your information?

        • shakeyoudown

          I claimed a horse for 30k last year. He had severe muscle atrophy in his hind quarters. Put him on EPM Meds and now he is a stake winner of over 400k. Don’t tell me you can’t race a horse with EPM.

          • ginger2000

            Given how horses contract EPM, feces from infected possums. It seems likely that they get the disease as young horses, not at the track. My friend bought a young TB mare (not for racing) who had been in training but didn’t do well. Horse has a fabulous front end, but hind end was not normal looking. She has treated her for EPM and seen improvement in only 2 weeks. It is out there..

          • Krissym

            Did they do the blood test? I had a suspected case of EPM at my barn and we did diagnostics. I paid to have the blood work sent to KY. It was negative. Lots of unidentified viruses can exhibit nerological symptoms. We need to be careful what we give our animals and take ourselves. You don’t give a person chemo if you think they might have cancer.

          • forestwildcat

            I call Bull$hit

          • Barry Irwin

            Why anybody would bother arguing with you, sir, when you possess personal scientific evidence such as this, is certainly a mystery for the ages. I had a horse that had a broken leg and was told that a horse with a broken leg could not be raced. Well, we went and won the World Cup with him, so I don’t listen to foolish nonsense anymore. I am with you all the way. Hey, just between us girls, did you ever think of trying to buy one of the former leading sires that has been retired because they are no longer fertile and breeding them to your own mares for free? I bet that would work, too. There is no end to the possibilities of exploiting this technique. Damn the experts and full speed ahead!

          • shakeyoudown

            Barry, Barry, Barry. Do you ridicule your flock of sheep, I mean partners in this same vein? I am envious of your wit and sarcasm. Giving a horse a dose of Marquis is not the equivalent of giving them EPO or Snake Venom. It is an FDA approved drug to combat EPM. So please get off your high horse before you fall and get a boo boo.

          • Barry Irwin

            I am sorry, I just couldn’t resist. When somebody gives me a straight line that big, I am just like a running back that spies a big hole in the line.

          • shakeyoudown

            Perhaps you should look for that big hole in your barn.

          • betterthannothing

            Shake: what is the name of the horse you claimed last year for $30,000 and has already won $400,000 for you?

          • shakeyoudown

            Mr. Online.

      • Bellwether


      • elkton stable

        That is a total myth. Diagnosis is difficult and somewhat unreliable. Many trainers and
        owners are duped into this by ill informed unscrupulous vets.

      • Sarah

        There are certainly horses running or in training with EPM, and I have used several types of EPM meds on those horses. I’m not a vet, but a longtime horse owner/ foreman/ exercise rider/ assistant trainer. I have done the standing epm blood test, the spinal tap, neck X-rays, and myelograms on suspected neuro horses. I’ve also treated suspected neuro horses based solely off a neuro exam. I have also galloped those horses and know what neurological horses feel like. If I had to guess a number I would guess that between 5-8% of horses are neurological, so it’s not a huge number, and not all of them are neurological because of Epm. It did seem to be a fad diagnosis for a while among certain vets but thankfully that seems to be winding down a bit. There’s a lot of horses in training being given epm meds like toltrazuril/pyramethamine or Marquis, that are getting it because many people feel it builds muscle. With steroids being (technically) illegal these days close to the sales, people are trying the “whatever works” method. I agree that if it was compounded correctly it would never had happened. But given that compounding has had some high profile issues in the past, I would be leery giving epm compounded meds when not indicated. Your chance of mistakes goes up without regulation. These drugs are safe when mixed correctly, even if not used as indicated probably. So theoretically were the vitamin jugs that killed all the polo ponies a couple years back. Doesn’t make me want to go running to the compounding labs to fill up my medicine cabinet and give horses everything but the kitchen sink.

        • shakeyoudown

          I agree with you Sarah.

    • Ben van den Brink

      Is the compounding Lab FDA registred or not, is the product registred or not??

      IF not, why should anyone rely on that kind of sources.

  • greg

    I am confused on 1 main issue of the article, is Dennis Nardlinger getting out of racing as the headline and 1st paragraph imply? I do NOT want that but want clarification

  • Sounds exactly like the situation on Amazon, where unscrupulous manufacturers peddle weight loss pills and other quack products, while at the same time, orchestrate & post thousands of bogus five-star reviews, signed with fictitious names. Hopefully, not with the same results for the humans that tragically occurred with these horses, what a disaster!

  • Michael Castellano

    Over medication could lead to the death of racing itself. Horses, like people, have existed without drugs for millions of years. Evolution by natural selection tends to minimize the type of problems inherent in the today’s breeding process (which is really the “inbreeding” process”) which seems to value only speed.

    • ginger2000

      You are so right! If a person was treated like a racehorse they would be far from healthy and have many side effects.

  • Jerry


  • Barry Irwin

    I will state it again: there is a blood test available to determine if a horse has EPM. This blood test should be done before meds are administered. EPM meds are among the most abused of drugs given to racehorses today. So where does the blame go? Everybody feels sorry for the loss of the horses, but which humans deserve sympathy and which humans deserve to be held up to scrutiny? That is the column I want to read.

    • G, Rarick

      Yes, I am a bit curious about a horse that actually HAS EPM winning by 12 lengths.

      • ginger2000

        Exactly. A horse who ran that well would not even be suspected of having EPM, even if he did, and would likely go undiagnosed. So it is far more likely the meds were being given for other reasons. So yes, the poor horses suffered, but the owner is certainly not innocent. If he had been one of those trying to improve the game – which is the inference of the article – his horses would all be alive.

      • Sandy

        Um, if you bothered to look…Unknown Road’s 12 length win was in November 2013. He last raced at FG in January. It is very possible that he contracted EPM since that time, especially if during his time in FL.

        • ginger2000

          How? Do you think there are infected possums running around the stable area?

          • RayPaulick

            Did you happen to see the photo of a possom running alongside California Chrome at Belmont Park prior to the Belmont?

          • ginger2000

            That’s a good point!

          • Barry Irwin

            Not to mention all the road kill possum they use in that Burgoo at Keeneland. Where do you think that comes from, Mars?

    • Bellwether

      Just keep bringing ‘The Hammer Down” Barry…Something is going to bring this whole DRUG MESS to a head sooner than later…ty…

    • mike

      I almost never agree with Barry – but he is 110% correct.

    • Beach

      If the test is relatively sensitive/specific for the disease, it is utterly foolish to give meds prior to truly knowing the deal re: the presence of disease. Especially if the meds themselves can be harmful…and possibly all to avoid paying for the test? Even more dumb…

    • Josh

      Barry, the ‘vets’ always tell you the blood test isn’t conclusive. So in your experience, how good is the test?

  • George Parker

    I agree that this is an “unconscionable scenario” and demonstrates “careless disregard for the health and welfare of the horse” but not for the reasons that Thomas asserts. Sometimes better living through chemistry is not better living at all.

    • Guest 2

      I agree also with you and so many other posters. Anyone who has seriously worked with race horses for a long time is well aware of the painful manners used to even subdue the horses to apply/inject/swallow etc. enough to make you sick. Lip chains, nerve lines, grab an ear AND a lip chain, grab 2 hands full of skin on their neck, pick up the other leg so the leg being worked on stays on the ground, get enough ‘big guys’ doing all of this’ to get the procedure done’ is what happens. Anyone who has worked on the backside for any length of time knows full well this is God’s truth. Horses get so sick of pain—and the “treatments” that are supposed to “treat” it, when most times all they need is time out in the pasture in the sun to heal. Go in any stall on any racetrack with the vet and watch how willingly the horse wants to see another needle. Without lip chains, etc., not much would be administered. It’s not only about EPM. Medically and drugs/surgery wise, unfortunately, can start at birth. I have seen it for 40 yrs. I could go on, but people will believe what they want. I have since retired, and now I only have to deal with the nightmares. Read forestwildcat and Hamish. “Follow the money…”

      • ginger2000

        Well said. It’s about money, not about caring for the horse.

  • Jay Stone

    Compounding pharmacies are very dangerous and under regulated. The case last summer in Mass. where many people died or were infected with bad drugs is a prime example. Marquis, the main EPM drug, is very expensive so people turn to an inexpensive compounded drug and this tragedy happens. Every horse who has an problem in his rear end is diagnosed as probable EPM case and treatment starts. The real EPM sufferers are a much smaller percentage.

  • forestwildcat

    The epm regimen is part of the shotgun approach used by almost all of your top two year old sale consigners in the place of horsemanship. A lot of people swear it helps them behind/move better whether they have epm or not

    • Laverne

      Says who? I worked for a prominent 2yo consigner…not ONCE were any horses given EPM meds UNLESS diagnosed, and of those that were, NONE were destined for the sales, but client horses headed to the track! Not sure where you’re getting your info.

      • forestwildcat

        All of my “info” comes from years of experience.

  • MyBigRed

    The saddest part of this story ?? The Poor Horses…..I feel bad for the owners, but my heart goes out to the horses. What a Horrible way to die. Bless their Hearts & Souls.
    I pray they figure out the source of the problem, so that no more horses have to die this way.

  • Ann Maree

    A “clear and present danger” that totally illustrates why we must have a central governing body that can mandate and oversee all such issues that affect the industry. It is unconscionable that there is not some mechanism in place to oversee these kinds of dangers to our equine heroes. This must be addressed immediately and cannot be allowed to founder from lack of attention. The advisability to use the drug in question for whatever purpose is secondary to the lack of systems in place to prevent this type of tragedy.

  • Beach

    I am so deeply sorry about this and these horses. When will people understand that they need to do better by these animals?

  • In tears

    EPM does not come from possoms. It comes from fresh water flukes

    • ginger2000

      The possum is the host that carries it to horses.

  • Barry Irwin

    This is exactly why it is up to the caretaker to be careful with the meds that are administered to a horse, who has no say so in the matter.

  • Jay Stone

    This particular horse, Unknown Road, was a very valuable horse at one time. He ran second in a key MSW race and then broke his maiden by the length of the stretch. He was on the derby trail in New Orleans when he ran up the track at odds on. He then disappeared until his death. He was by Bernadini and out of a champion female family. He wouldn’t be the kind of horse you would cut costs and experiment with.

  • franjurga

    Dates? Numbers? I’d love to see a timeline of sales figures on compounded or even FDA-approved EPM meds in the racing industry. EPM has been around for a while but we didn’t hear about widespread medication for it in racing until recent years. It is definitely not the only neurological problem a horse can have. But is there a date when steroids for young sales-bound horses and younger racing horses were stopped…and would that date possibly correspond to when EPM meds became so necessary for young stock? I wonder if those dates might match up.

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