It's been nearly eight years since the late Kent Stirling, then the executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said during a Congressional hearing on “Medication and Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Horse Racing” that the bronchodilator clenbuterol is “probably the best drug that's come out in 30 years.”
Veterinarians I've spoken to have confirmed that clenbuterol syrup (trade name Ventipulmin) – approved in May 1998 by the FDA for treatment in horses with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – is, indeed, the best treatment available for airway obstruction.
The problem, as Andy Beyer wrote in the Washington Post in January 1997 – years after clenbuterol had begun flowing illegally into the United States from Canada, where it was legal – is that certain trainers suspected of using the drug “performed apparent miracles” when their horses made “inexplicable improvements” in performance.
The performance enhancements most likely were not due to improved breathing but a steroidal effect many claim clenbuterol has on horses and other livestock. And it wasn't just race horses who were being beefed up on the drug. Some 4-H or FFA members at county and state fairs learned that their prized steers, hogs or sheep had a better chance of winning if put on a clenbuterol regimen.
Yes, sadly, there is even cheating among teenagers at livestock shows.
During his Congressional testimony in which he praised the drug, the Florida HBPA's Stirling admitted that clenbuterol “has anabolic properties and people are abusing it.”
That abuse only got worse after racing regulators began putting more restrictive regulations on the use of anabolic steroids. Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board recalled a warning that human drug testing expert Don Caitlin gave to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium when regulators made it more difficult for horses to train on anabolic steroids. “He said, 'They will go with the beta 2 agonists (bronchodilators),'” Arthur said of Caitlin. “That includes drugs like clenbuterol, albuterol, ractopamine and zilpaterol.”
It should be noted that clenbuterol is included on the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List for human athletes as an “anabolic agent.”
Arthur, who gave up his racetrack practice after 30 years to become the CHRB's equine medical director in 2006, learned the extent that clenbuterol was being used in California during out-of-competition testing conducted on 98 Thoroughbreds in March 2012. Fifty-five of those horses (56%) had clenbuterol in their system. “With some barns we tested it was 100% of the horses,” said Arthur, “and with some it was just a few percent.”
Testing on Quarter horses racing at Los Alamitos was even more startling, with every horse tested out of competition having clenbuterol in its system, Arthur said.
Trainers who were routinely giving clenbuterol to their horses as a training aid weren't necessarily breaking any rules. But using a drug designed to treat airway obstruction as a means to build muscle mass seems highly unethical for both the trainer and veterinarian who prescribes it.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whose roots are in Quarter horse racing, said clenbuterol nearly ruined that sport. Los Alamitos owner Dr. Edward Allred got fed up with the abuse of the drug at his track. In 2014, he instituted house rules and hair testing – which can detect the presence of the drug months after administration – to prohibit any detectable level of clenbuterol. The American Quarter Horse Association followed suit, making it illegal to have any amount of clenbuterol in a horse's system.
While Baffert said he could see the difference in Quarter horse racing once clenbuterol was eliminated, he doesn't like what the drug has done on the Thoroughbred side, either.
“They just need to get rid of it,” Baffert said. “We don't need it.”
Trainer Mark Casse, whose highly successful stable operates in multiple states and at Woodbine in Canada, calls clenbuterol “the most abused drug in our industry by far and it needs to be eliminated. Not only in racehorses, but in our young horses at the sales.”
Nearly every racing state facilitates the use of clenbuterol in Thoroughbreds for training. Though it previously could be given closer to raceday, the current withdrawal recommendation under the Association of Racing Commissioners International's model rules is 14 days. But if a trainer gives large doses of clenbuterol to a horse to build muscle mass and then withdraws it at 14 days, Casse contends, that built-in advantage of the steroidal effects is not going away.
Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, agrees. “You can't restrict it to prevent its use as an anabolic agent,” Arthur said.
The CHRB has adopted the most stringent rules for clenbuterol in North America, first for Quarter horses and more recently for Thoroughbreds, with no threshold levels recognized in testing.
California rules now in place require that:
- A veterinarian must have a specific diagnosis for any horse to be prescribed clenbuterol, and that treatment may not last for more than 30 days for each prescription. The horse's name, specific diagnosis and duration of treatment must be reported by the attending veterinarian to the official veterinarian. A trainer must also report administration of clenbuterol to the official veterinarian.
- Any horse prescribed clenbuterol goes on the vet's list until an official test sample after a workout performed to demonstrate its physical fitness shows there is no level of the drug in blood or urine.
- Any horse that tests positive for clenbuterol in post-race or out-of-competition testing will be placed on the vet's list until an investigation is conducted to determine the circumstances of the drug's presence and until subsequent tests fail to detect the drug in blood or urine.
The new rule is working to get rid of the drug except for its intended purpose as an aid for airway obstruction, according to Arthur. Where out-of-competition testing once showed more than half the Thoroughbreds sampled in California were on clenbuterol, Arthur estimates only one or two horses per hundred are now getting the drug.
It's time for other states to follow California's lead.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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