Jeff Blea, DVM, On The Santa Anita Crisis, Medication And Racing’s Survival

by | 03.24.2019 | 7:59pm
Jeff Blea, DVM: "The survivability of the sport in my state is on the line. But this crisis is not solely owned by California racing; it is shared by everyone involved in the racing industry."

As a veterinarian practicing at Santa Anita, the last few months have been the most difficult of my career.  I've experienced grief for the horses who have been euthanized, and frustration with the spike in racing and training injuries.  The survivability of the sport in my state is on the line. But this crisis is not solely owned by California racing; it is shared by everyone involved in the racing industry.

I also serve as the current chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Racing Committee and as a past president of the association. The AAEP is a very diverse organization, much like the racing industry itself. The equine safety and welfare rule changes recently instituted at Santa Anita were met by our membership with the same diverse response.  As an association, our goal is to place the horse first in all we do, and looking through that lens, some of the new policies presented by The Stronach Group align with policies the AAEP has previously endorsed.

The AAEP recommended in 2015 a 48-hour restricted administration time on NSAIDs prior to racing, and this recommendation is currently under scientific review by the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium. Our organization also supports a stricter, more comprehensive out-of-competition testing program throughout the racing industry. The details of the testing program at Santa Anita are still being developed, but it is my hope that it can serve as a template for other jurisdictions' efforts.

The phase-out of Lasix on race day is the one significant rule change which does not mirror the AAEP's current medication policy.  Scientific evidence demonstrates that Lasix is currently the most efficacious medication for the treatment of EIPH in the racehorse. We also understand the related integrity issues of Lasix administration on the day of the race, which is why the AAEP endorses the third-party administration of the medication by regulatory veterinarians. The AAEP has funded scientific research with the goal of discovering an effective treatment for EIPH which does not involve race-day administration. Is a medical alternative on the brink of discovery? This would be our ideal scenario, but the truth is that industry-wide decisions about race-day Lasix may be made before a more efficacious option is in place.

One reform not addressed by The Stronach Group is the use of bisphosphonates in racehorses. As more scientific evidence comes forth to demonstrate the negative effects of the off-label use of these medications, the AAEP strongly recommends an end to the use of this drug in horses under four years of age. This applies to horses prepping for sales, in training and actively racing. More research is clearly indicated.

I personally believe the cause of the Santa Anita crisis is multifactorial, and I am optimistic that we at Santa Anita can continue to ensure the safety of our athletes moving forward. Racing is a complicated, incredible industry which requires all stakeholders to be held accountable, not only in the eyes of the public, but more importantly, to the racehorses themselves. The survival of the sport depends on it.

Dr. Jeff Blea, a partner in the Southern California-based racetrack veterinary practice von Bluecher, Blea, Hunkin, Inc., is former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and current chair of the AAEP's Racing Committee. He has served on numerous industry committees devoted to equine welfare and safety, research, education, medication policy and aftercare.

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