Senate hearing reveals the realities of doping in horse racing


Committee investigates whether a national set of standards for performance-enhancing medications is a possible solution.

In July, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Interstate Horse Racing Act, held a hearing on medication and performance enhancing drugs in horse racing, chaired by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). The issue at hand is that unlike other sports, horseracing lacks a commission or a league office that can issue uniform rules. "State racing commissions routinely impose small fines and short suspensions," Udall said. "There is minimal deterrence, and chronic doping continues unabated." Industry experts testified about the perceptions and realities of doping and what could or should be done to fix the sport. The committee is investigating whether a national set of standards for performance-enhancing medications is a possible solution.

Perception vs. reality

Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association and chairman of the group's medication committee said the National HBPA's position on performance-enhancing drugs is zero-tolerance. "Owners and trainers who cheat by administering drugs that have no legitimate use in horses to win races should be kicked out of racing," Stirling said. "The use of drugs like snake venom and the recently reported opiates (dermorphin) is doping, plain and simple."

With that said, data that state racing authorities have compiled shows that doping of Thoroughbred racehorses in the United States is rare. Racing commissions test at least two horses in every race—that's a 25 percent sample of all horses racing in the U.S. From 2009 to 2011, there were nearly 300,000 post-race blood and urine tests conducted. Only 82 tested positive for drugs that were used to enhance performance or to cheat. That means roughly 99.9 percent of all tests were negative for doping substances. During that same three-year period, state racing authorities licensed 5,800 trainers. On average, 12 trainers per year were guilty of illegally doping horses, according to state regulatory data, meaning 99.8 percent of all trainers did not dope horses. "These statistics should be the envy of every other sport that tests for drugs, like professional football, baseball, cycling, to name a few," Stirling said.

Stirling also noted that the NHBPA does not oppose the controlled use of therapeutic medication used to treat injuries and infirmities—medications like furosemide, which acts to prevent pulmonary hemorrhaging. While Stirling believes that doping is rare, Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor International, said racing commissions operate with hands tied because the organizations can only test for what they know. "There are probably plenty of positives that we don't about because we don't know what drugs are being used, so we can't test for them," Irwin said. "These are 'designer' drugs that we'll find out about later that are being used today, but that won't come to the surface until later." Irwin said the real problem is that there are too many enablers, and as long as there are people who are willing to cheat, there is going to be an appetite for those drugs. Until there's a way to eliminate cheating, the culture can't change.

But others on the panel said there has been change and progress over the last few years. James Gagliano, president of The Jockey Club, said some improved regulations have made racing more uniform across jurisdictions. For example, anabolic steroids are virtually banned across all pari-mutuel states. Kentucky is on the road to eliminating the use of Lasix. New Mexico and California more strictly regulate Clenbuterol. "But, that is not enough," he said. "Regulations vary too widely in racing states, there is no central authority or set rules and rigorous enforcement is lacking."

What's more, according to Gagliano, the definition of performance-enhancing drugs is too vague, unscientific, and fails to differentiate between drugs administered only for therapeutic reasons and drugs with no use except performance-enhancement. The reform medication rules, on the other hand, classify only 25 therapeutic drugs, and only if they are withdrawn well before a race. This is based on significant veterinary consensus, he said. All other medications are always prohibited.

Enforcement solutions

While most of those who testified agreed adopting a national set of standards for performance-enhancing medications is a step in the right direction, different solutions were proposed. "The thing that would help us the most if the federal government got involved would be to establish a couple of super labs," said Jeffrey Gural, chairman, Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, and chairman and managing partner of American Racing and Entertainment. "What we do now is foolish because every state has its own lab, so the resources are being spread out too thin." To combat this, Gural proposed a super lab on both coasts, each having a higher proportion of money channeled to them so that they can operate more effectively.

Others would like to see more traditional policing and investigating. "What we need to do is to get the FBI or the DEA involved so they can do some good old-fashioned police work, find out what some of these drugs are that are being used, and then test for them," Stirling said.

A nationwide ban from the sport for repeat offenders is also a popular solution. "When somebody is caught that should be the end of it," Gural said. "And frankly, the best thing would be if we took some of these trainers out in handcuffs. That would be the end of drugging if we walked offenders out of the barn in handcuffs. Would anybody do it if they thought they could go to jail?"

Not everyone who testified for the committee was on board with the idea of a federal law. Matthew Whitman, national director of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) recognizes that animal welfare is the single most important issue facing the equine industry. However, the AQHA does not support federal intervention. Instead, the organization wants the industry to come together to regulate itself. The AQHA is urging states to adopt stricter guidelines on permitted medications and stronger penalties for individuals who use performance-enhancing drugs. "Clearly, more must be done and is being done, not just because we have the public trust at stake, but because it is the right thing to do for our horses," Whitman said. The AQHA encourages state racing authorities in every jurisdiction to levy the maximum penalties allowable against people who are doping horses, endangering horse's lives and the lives of jockeys and horsemen.

Sheila Lyons, DVM, founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, said the industry needs the proposed legislation in order to compel compliance with board regulations. She said the key to responsible drug use and the safety and integrity of horse racing has escaped many recent discussions. "It's the context in which a drug is used that determines its fate as either appropriate therapy or to enable recovery, or as injury-masking, or as a performance-enhancing agent," she said. "The authority and privilege that veterinarians have to administer, prescribe, and dispense drugs is granted not through racing commissions, but through licensure by veterinary boards."

Veterinarians are required to strictly adhere to the standards of practice that regulate the profession. This means keeping comprehensive patient records."We must make these records available to our clients upon request," Lyons said. "But, this is not what is happening at these racetracks. This is the real drug problem that underlies the intolerable rate of permanent injury and death of race horses and their riders."

Lyons said if horses are acutely unwell and in need of drug therapy, they should not be allowed to race. "If they are not unwell, they cannot be given medication under the law which regulates this profession," she said. "Racehorse" is not a diagnosis, and a veterinarian must meet a higher standard of care in practice before administering medication.

She said if the committee expands its view to include the government oversight that licensing boards are designed to provide, it will find a partner in the power it lacks to end this practice by enforcing the regulations that govern veterinary practice and change the industry as it must. "I hope," Lyons said, "that this committee will help us through its power to create an effective national system of regulation and enforcement so that the horses and the general public can be assured of its integrity."

The last word

Ultimately, what the committee hopes to do is set a national standard, and then put the responsibility back on the racing commissions and on the states to do the right thing. "We want to try to move forward to put a good, solid piece of legislation in place and send a strong signal and then let your regulators who have been doing it for a long time take it seriously and actually get it done," Sen. Udnall said. "I think if we start with those principles of the Horse Racing Improvement Act: banning race day meds, three-strikes-and-you're-out, and making sure that we had horses tested—that we would really come a long way towards moving down the road of cleaning up the industry and getting us back to the glory days of racing."

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