When, on March 28, both the incoming and outgoing chairs of the Association of Racing Commissioners International called for a five-year plan to eliminate race-day medication, a possible watershed moment was presented to racing in the United States.
Perhaps the decades of discussion and dissension will give way, finally, to recognition that American racing medication policies are not only out of step with an increasing number of the world’s racing nations, but out of step with other major league sports in our own backyard.
Regardless of the sport and regardless of the country, regulatory authorities, participants, fans and customers are growing increasingly intolerant of the use of performance-altering substances which may influence the outcome of competition.
Although current rules of racing categorize medications into those permitted to be administered prior to race day and those permitted on race day, it is the latter which has attracted the most attention, specifically furosemide and a few adjunct anti-bleeder medications.
Current policy in this country regarding medications administered prior to race day is not that dissimilar from international racing jurisdictions, where the objective it to ensure the pharmacological effects of the substances are eliminated by the time of the race. The recent ARCI model rule lowering the regulatory threshold for phenylbutazone is a good example of a major step towards harmony with international medication standards.
The major difference pertains to race-day medications. Most of our international colleagues don’t permit it, period — yet still manage top-tier racing programs without the need to medicate their athletes on race day. In fact, information recently received from the Hong Kong Jockey Club reveals that just 1.4 percent of their racing population — averaging 15 horses per year — is compulsorily retired annually due to issues related to Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage.
With recent action proposed in South America, the U.S. and Canada will soon be the only major racing jurisdictions in the world that allow a racehorse to receive medication on the day of the race.
Soon after ARCI’s announcement, several organizations spoke up in favor of the ultimate goal of eliminating race-day medication, including the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Keeneland Association, Breeders’ Cup, Ltd., Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America, and The Jockey Club.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association failed to achieve consensus on the matter and, along with the American Association of Equine Practitioners, is responding to the call of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium to host an international summit to address race-day medication. Those organizers should endeavor to gather international regulators, trainers and veterinarians to discuss and develop specific recommendations for the management of EIPH without furosemide, to better align our medication policies with concerns expressed by our fans and verified by NTRA’s own survey results, which follow:
2007 “Whether it is performing enhancing drugs or therapeutic overages, Thoroughbred racing is suffering from a serious drug problem that is undermining the sport”
2008 “They [core fans] see racing as losing its integrity by the day, and seriously challenged on two different fronts: a) performance enhancing drugs and b) safety and welfare”
2009 Summarized: nearly 60% of core fans interviewed indicated they are “very concerned” about performance enhancing drugs in horseracing
Addressing the HBPA Position and the South African Study
Meanwhile, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association quite expectedly balked at the statements made by the ARCI leaders this past March. With nearly 95% of all starters and 75% of first-time starters receiving furosemide, it is understandable that the organization whose members are most closely connected to the horse — the trainers — would feel other stakeholders in the industry were forcing their hand inappropriately.
There are various points of accord between The Jockey Club’s position and the HBPA’s recent statements.
The Jockey Club agrees with the HBPA that furosemide is a good treatment for EIPH. In fact, the 2009 study in South Africa, which validated the efficacy of furosemide in reducing EIPH, was funded in part by the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
This study, however, which was designed to evaluate the efficacy of furosemide in preventing EIPH in horses, provides little, if any, guidance for setting medication policies regarding the use of furosemide in horse racing. And clearly, it did not consider the fundamental drivers of policy such as the integrity of the sport, the perception and confidence of our customers and the health of the breed, to name a few.
Our international colleagues responsible for regulating racing abroad would appear to agree: the study has not caused a single international racing jurisdiction to reconsider their ban on the use of furosemide on race day. This is not surprising. Even with furosemide, the majority of horses still bled (as determined by an endoscopic exam) and the average decrease in EIPH score was less than one-half a grade on the 0-4 grading scale used in the study.
We further agree with the HBPA that drug testing of horse racing in this country is already more comprehensive than in any other sport; and it needs to go much further. The comprehensive efforts begun under the RMTC’s Drug Testing Initiative must continue to implement standardized testing procedures, certify testing labs to consistent high levels and provide enforcement through a uniform national medication rulebook containing clear guidelines for medication-free competition along with powerful deterrents to illegal activity. Tougher penalties and race-day security procedures designed to catch the cheaters, are also integral.
The Jockey Club also concurs that the concept of “zero tolerance” is impractical and self-defeating. Improvements in detection of medications through changes in technology result in a moving standard, disconnected from scientific understanding of the medication in the horse.
Matters raised recently by the HBPA that The Jockey Club does not agree with include the suggestion that all parties and viewpoints have not been sufficiently involved in racing’s dialogue. For anyone who has followed the virtual half-century of evolution from what was once styled “controlled” medication to today, it is not credible to suggest that any stakeholder has not been given adequate opportunity to be heard.
In fact, that organization already has successfully executed a one-year delay in implementation of an otherwise widely-endorsed reduction of allowable levels of Phenylbutazone to improve the ability of examining veterinarians to detect soundness issues during pre-race inspections.
Matters of Science and Policy
The Jockey Club has always been a strong proponent of the value of research to answer questions of science. But we believe additional science is unnecessary here to answer the fundamental question of policy before us: should horses race only when they are free from the influence of medications? We answer yes.
The Jockey Club, however, disagrees with the assertion that the American race horse could not compete without furosemide. The prime recent examples countering this assertion are the frequent victories of American-campaigned horses in the Dubai World Cup and, most recently, at Royal Ascot where the U.S. was represented by two winners, where they are not allowed to run on any therapeutic substances.
Current race-day medication policies have resulted in the overuse of an under-needed medication that is far from producing a “level playing field.” Adding to that the use of adjunct bleeder medications — which have failed to demonstrate efficacy in the treatment of EIPH — our overall race-day medication policies have become disconnected from the sport.
With the results of the international summit in hand, perhaps the HBPA’s summer convention would be best utilized to provide its members with alternatives to managing EIPH besides the use of furosemide, rather than continuing to debate the merits of race-day medication.
The fundamental disagreement gets to the heart of the sport of racing. Is it to be an honest game in which the athletes perform solely on the basis of their physical abilities, free of artificial enhancements? Should it be a game where a bright line exists separating when therapeutic treatment of an athlete ends and competition begins?
We answer yes on both accounts: the integrity of horse racing and the health and safety of our human and equine athletes requires horses to compete free from the influence of medications.
In addition to its ability to reduce EIPH, furosemide has been found to exert a number of other effects in the horse broadly accepted as performance enhancing. Furosemide leads to significant weight loss by post time and increases TCO2 levels among other pharmacological effects.
In the atmosphere of today’s sports world, where the acronym PED (Performance Enhancing Drugs) regularly litters reports on baseball, football, cycling, etc., no sport should expect its public, or its honest participants, to embrace a philosophy of performance enhancement. The public is our customer, and the customer should not be asked to embrace a knowingly sullied product.
Many observers today believe that the Thoroughbred is not as sound and hardy as he once was, and the generations of horses racing on medication and then dominating the gene pool are suspected of causing or contributing to that decline. Thus, the welfare of the breed merges with the welfare of the business. If the rest of the world increasingly looks on the American Thoroughbred as a tainted product, the impact on the international market is easily predictable.
The proper treatment of animals is a high priority to the public, now more than ever. Even the horseman who sincerely believes he or she is doing right by the horse by racing on medications should grasp that the public can hardly be expected to distinguish between a syringe that provides the proper therapy and one that introduces chicanery. Survey after survey has said that medication adversely affects the public’s acceptance of sports.
Horse racing is no different.
The Jockey Club stands convinced that the elimination of race-day medication is essential to achieving optimal stewardship of the horse, the sport, the public perception and confidence, and the business of Thoroughbred racing. We welcome the fresh opportunity, created by the current attention to furosemide, to steer back to a more proper path and urge the development of a comprehensive plan to phase in these reforms, including medication-free competition.
James L. Gagliano
President & Chief Operating Officer
The Jockey Club