Across The Pond: How Does British Racing Regulate Drugs?

by | 12.13.2017 | 3:12pm
Horses train on Warren Hill, one of the most famous gallops in Newmarket

This is the first in a series of three articles comparing and contrasting medication use and regulation in Britain with those in the United States. We will examine the differences between the systems from the perspective of regulators, trainers, and veterinarians. 

When it comes to medication regulation, it's no secret things are done differently across the Atlantic. As American racing tries (or doesn't try, depending on where you sit) to improve its image regarding welfare, safety and fair competition, readers often ask why the sport doesn't seem to have so much trouble regulating medication use in other places. British racing is frequently cited – either as an example Americans ought to follow, or perhaps as needing further scrutiny.

We wanted to know how trainers and veterinarians work under more restrictive rules. Do British horses encounter the same health issues as ours? When they do have a soundness problem, how does the horse's care team work together to solve it? And just as importantly, which parts of the British approach can or can't be adapted to the States?

Broader control

The obvious difference in British and American rulemaking is the totality of the British Horseracing Authority's (BHA) control. Of course, there is one set of rules and a more uniform laboratory system, but the conditions of licensing are different in another important way.

In the United States, state racing commissions are generally reluctant to assert jurisdiction over activities taking place outside the tracks and training centers recognized by the state. The only exception to this seems to be out-of-competition testing. The model rule for out-of-competition testing adopted by the Association of Racing Commissioners International in late 2016 permits regulators to sample a horse if it is 1) on a track or training center grounds 2) under the care of a licensed trainer 3) entered or nominated to race 4) has raced within 12 months or 5) is nominated to a state breeders' fund or sire stakes program. The rule does not allow officials to search a trainer's facilities beyond the racetrack while pulling a sample.

A handful of states have adopted the late 2016 ARCI rule according to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, including Arkansas, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

In Britain, the BHA requires trainers, by condition of license, to allow testing and searches at any facility where their horses are kept. Additionally, trainers are required to keep a log of all medications administered to horses in the yard, signed by their veterinarians, along with dosage and diagnosis.

The BHA also has a single set of penalty guidelines available to trainers found in violation of these and other policies, and repetitive violations will cause permanent issues.

The BHA follows International Federation of Horseracing Authority standards regarding testing and laboratories, and there's no doubt having a uniform set of standards for all races in the country makes life easier.

Pushing the envelope?

The BHA does not publish withdrawal times for therapeutic medications like Lasix or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Instead, the organization puts out ‘detection times' and the route and dose of medication those times are based on, and suggests trainers work with their vet to add the appropriate cushion to those detection times. For example, although the detection time for phenylbutazone (“bute”) is listed at five days, veterinarians in Britain told the Paulick Report a one-week withdrawal would likely be the minimum.

“They give a pretty good indication of what the time would be and then it's up to the trainer or the veterinarian to add to that whatever needs to be added to make it comfortable,” said Dr. David Sykes, Director of Equine Health and Welfare at the BHA. “We don't publish withdrawal times here; I don't think hardly any authorities would publish withdrawal times. We all have detection times or detection limits, which are available.”

A detection time refers to the number of hours pre-race at which a medication administration will result in a positive test according to European Horseracing Scientific Liason Committee rules. According to BHA regulations, a withdrawal time is detection time plus additional time added on by a veterinarian to assure a horse will not test positive for a medication.

“It's very important to remember that all horses are different, and there are no guarantees that a substance will be completely out of a horse's system even if the drug was given well in advance of the known Detection Time – if a substance is given to a horse at least this far in advance of an intended race, there is a greatly reduced chance of a positive test occurring,” reads the BHA website. “The Withdrawal Time should be longer than a Detection Time to take into account the impact of all sources of animal variability such as age, sex, breed, and lifestyle in and those of the medicinal product actually administered such as formulation, route of administration, dosage regimen and duration of treatment.”

In the States, trainers and veterinarians are provided with testing thresholds and/or suggested withdrawal guidance, but horsemen have pushed back against some of that guidance in recent years. Court cases have arisen when a trainer professes to have followed withdrawal guides but still received a positive test. Meanwhile, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium works to periodically update thresholds and accompanying withdrawals as new scientific research becomes available, to the criticism of horsemen and groups like the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians.

Test contamination has become a big topic in the States, and Sykes said the issue has come up in Britain as well. In fact, the BHA recently announced its intent to modify rule language after a disciplinary panel decided not to penalize a trainer for a case of unintentional administration of a substance. He's not convinced yet of whether it could be a legitimate source of a false positive test.

“One of the things we're looking at here in the UK is potential contamination from urination in stables, where the groom may urinate in the horse's stall regularly,” said Sykes. “It's possible that if the horse came into contact with hay or shavings that had an active ingredient from that contamination, they could have low levels detected. But I don't think anyone's really done the work on that at the moment. If you're a trainer in the yard, you're going to prevent any of your staff from urinating in the stables and you're going to prevent that problem there. If you are taking medication, after you've taken your medication, wash your hands.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that New York was the only state to have adopted 2016 ARCI language regarding out-of-competition testing. That distinction has been updated to refer to Arkansas, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. 

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