The use of steroids and medication in horse racing is one of the biggest problems the industry is facing right now. Based on the congressional hearings last month in Washington D.C., there are likley to be major rule changes in the near future. With so many different steroids and medications being duscussed recently - mostly because of the Eight Belles tragedy and violations of top trainers - it is important for people to be informed about the different drugs in the news. Many times, all steroids and medications are lumped togehther into the same category, which can be confusing to fans. What better person to help clear up some of the misinformation being thrown out there than Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. An expert in the field of veterinary medicine and an advocate for equine health, Dr. Arthur has been with the CHRB since the mid-'80s and was also in private practice for many years, working for top barns such as Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella and Ron McAnally, just to name a few.
For many working inside the racing industry, some of the information below may already be well known. But based on comments and questions I have received from for general racing fans over the past few months, there is a lot we can all learn from Dr. Arthur.
JS: What is Winstrol and how it is used in horses?
RA: Winstrol is a manufactured pharmaceutical anabolic steroid that mimics testosterone. Some stables use it routinely, as much as once every week or two. Other trainers use it when a horse is off its feed from rigorous training, or to pick up appetite or attitude. It’s used a little different by everybody.
JS: There is a lot of debate as to whether Winstrol, and steroids in general, are performance enhancing for horses. Are they?
RA: The short answer is we don’t know. There is no scientific information to say it makes horses run faster, just as we don’t know if it makes a batter hit more home runs or a pitcher strike out more batters. Anecdotally and from surveys we have conducted, we do know that roughly 60% of all horses have evidence of steroids in their systems. If it was proven that it was performance enhancing, all trainers would probably use it.
In my opinion, performance enhancement is not the primary issue with steroids. The other aspect is, do they allow horses to train at an intensity level that is good for them? Do they make horses train harder? If they do, it is possible that horses are training at an intensity level that is an increased catastrophic injury risk to them.
JS: Discuss the current rules regarding steroids and what direction the industry is moving towards in regards to banning them.
RA: The consortium allow horses to train with them, just not use them within a ceratin amount of time before race day. I believe within a year all states will have rules in place that will prohibit steroids. In Europe, steroids have been prohibited since the mid-1970s.
JS: In your opinion, do steroids give horse an advantage to run faster?
RA: I don’t know. But I can’t say that they don’t give an advantage. I think the public assumes that they do.
JS: Are you in favor of a ban on all steroids in horse racing?
RA: Yes I am.
JS: Although it has been around for a while, recently, lidocaine has come into the public spotlight because a horse trained by Steve Asmussen tested positive for a metabolite of it, hydroxylidocaine. Explain what lidocaine is and what it is used for.
RA: Lidocaine is a local anesthetic. It blocks nerve conduction so that they don't feel pain. It is in the same group as novocain and mepivicane. It is used very frequently by trainers – for castration, wound heeling and diagnostic nerve blocking. It is a routine part of equine health care. It is absolutely necessary for things like suturing up a horse, castration or diagnostic nerve blocks. In my opinion, you can’t properly practice without it. It just can’t be there on race day.
JS: What are the rules regarding the uses of lidocaine and mepivicaine?
RA: The rules read differently in every state. In California there is a threshold level. In other states, there is no threshold level. If it is detected, it is a violation. The bottom line is there is no justification for having lidocaine or mepivicaine in a post race sample. If there is, something is not right. They are drugs that you cannot find (in a horse’s blood) outside of 96 hours (of being administered), so it’s hard to be real sympathetic when it shows up in a post race sample.
Now, mistakes always arise and the intent might not be malicious, but it still should not be there. The reason is, it can be a real serious safety issue. If a horse runs and an injury is being blocked, they are at risk.
JS: Why are there so many drug positives with this drug in particular?
RA: Many trainers say it’s a mix-up. It’s a drug that is very prevalent. It can be found in almost every barn and many say it was given to the wrong horse (by mistake). Many trainers are adamant in their denial. One thing I’ve learned in my years is that there has never been a trainer who knows anything about a drug violation.
JS: Let’s move onto another drug that has been in the news over the past couple weeks – clenbuterol. Recently, Rick Dutrow was suspended 15 days for using this incorrectly.
RA: Clenbuterol is also very commonly used. It is a bronchial dilator that can be very beneficial in treating small airway disease. Horses are very prone to this problem. Let’s face it, horses live in dirty environments and they are in a profession where there is a lot of pulmonary hemorrhage bleeding. It is a drug that has been available for 25 years and we hardly ever use to see it. Now, it is the No. 1 drug in California that we deal with. The reason? The penalty structure is not enough of a deterrent.
JS: You said lidocaine is needed in treating horses. Is clenbuterol a drug that horses need as well?
RA: Do they need it? No. Do they benefit from it? Yes. Many horses function very well with it for a long period of time. But it is also a drug that a threshold level is needed. Unlike lidocaine, it shows up in the system for long periods of time. But with that being said, it is a relatively easy violation to avoid. I have found that it is not a drug that many trainers use to beat they system. It is often a mistake in the barn.
JS: Is it performance enhancing?
RA: That is open to debate. My opinion is that if given very close to a race, it can influence performance.
JS: There are many other classes of drugs out there that we don’t have time to touch on. But let’s talk about testing for a minute. How advanced is drug testing in horse racing?
RA: You can never test for everything out there, but (in California) our lab screens can test for about 800 pharmaceutical drugs and can detect for a much wider variety of drugs than most human tests, which usually only look for steroids and recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. We test for things like local anesthetics, stimulants, depressants, tranquilizers and many other things. As far as testing goes, horse racing has a very good story to tell.
JS: Who decides which horses are tested and how often?
RA: In California, the first, second and third (finishers) and stakes (races) are tested, and we do about six to nine randoms every day. I would say about 20% of all (race) horses are tested.
JS: Who pays for it and is it cost efficient?
RA: Who pays for it is a real issue right now. Testing is state funded and pretty much all states are broke. California is a relatively well-funded state and dollar for dollar our budget is less than it was 16 or 17 years ago. It is a serious problem right now.
JS: Recently, there has been talk of having a zero tolerance drug policy implemented. Is this realistic?
RA: Zero tolerance really depends on which ones you are talking about and at what levels. Let me start by saying that drug testing has improved dramatically over the last 20 or 30 years. For example, lasix was introduced in the early 1960s before any test could detect it. Now, virtually every test in the world can identify it. When you’re talking about clenbuterol, we can trace it in levels as low as 25 parts per trillion. So with some of these drugs we are talking about very, very low levels. There needs to be specific guidelines for each drug.
JS: In regards to drugs, what changes do we need to make for horse racing to be safer and better?
RA: We need a unified governing body that sets rules and drug violation penalties. Something similar to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). WADA would be a great model for horse racing to follow. It would solve a lot of problems. All rules would be standardized and all labs would be of the same quality. The RMTC (Racing and Medication Testing Consortium) has been working on this for a lot of years (if and when the rules are changed), so it was already in place before all the brouhaha with Eight Belles.
JS: Do penalties for violators need to be stricter?
RA: Absolutely. In England, they go 25 years without a violation. The reason? It is a nine-month suspension. A nine-month suspension would clean up a lot of sloppy practices. This is the direction that we need to be moving in. It would solve a lot of problems. The industry needs to start policing itself better. Nobody wants federal regulation.