Give Bute the Boot - By Eric Mitchell


(Originally published in the October 9, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric MitchellFew issues in horse racing fire up people’s emotions like medication. A couple of years ago the target was anabolic steroids, and the industry reacted quickly. By Jan. 1, 2009, most U.S. racing jurisdictions had adopted rules banning the use of anabolic steroids. 

Today the target is phenylbutazone, an analgesic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory more commonly known as Bute. Think Advil for horses.

The Model Rules Committee of the Association of Racing Commissioners International voted 12-0 (with one abstention) to lower the level of race-day Bute from 5 micrograms per milliliter to 2 micrograms. What is driving the proposed change is a concern that horses unfit to race are slipping past the pre-race veterinary exam because Bute is masking various problems. Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, noted in a speech at The Jockey Club Round Table in August that 90% of all horses that suffer fatal musculoskeletal injuries have some pre-existing injury at the site of the fatal injury.

Lowering the threshold to 2 µ/ml (micrograms/milliliter) may allow the veterinarians conducting pre-race inspections to do their jobs better and avoid catastrophic breakdowns. That’s the goal.

The proposed rule change, however, has some problems, according to members of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and the California Thoroughbred Trainers. The biggest problem is little or no research exists as it relates to the rule change, even though decades of research have been conducted on how Bute works inside a horse. Will lowering the amount of Bute alone affect pre-race exams or are other drugs involved? Does the drop from 5 µ/ml to 2 µ/ml improve the identification of horses that should not be starting in a race? Anecdotal evidence from some racetrack veterinarians suggests Bute is a factor, but this is not the same as research.

“We supported full force the anabolic steroid rule change,” said Joe Santanna, president and CEO of the National HBPA. “Show us the scientific evidence, and if it is just like the anabolic steroid issue, we’re in.”

Calling for more research is seen as stonewalling by the ARCI, Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and The Jockey Club.

Scot Waterman, RMTC executive director, said no medication used in horses has been studied more than Bute, and the research indicates a single 2-gram intravenous injection could be administered less than 24 hours before a race and not be detected postrace at the current 5 µ/ml level. Intravenous Bute moves out of the horse’s system more quickly than paste Bute. “You could come in at 15, even 12 hours (before a race) and still be less than 5 micrograms postrace,” he said.

No one questions the need to keep horses sound and to catch cheaters, but there are some questions about the proposed rule change.

First, the rule change does not address two other commonly used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that function like Bute: flunixin and ketoprofen. Why single out one medication? Arthur said these medications are not included because the permitted threshold is too low already. A trainer could not give them at the dosage required to be effective 24 hours from a race and beat the test. On the other hand, the permissible level for Bute does allow the opportunity for it to be given within 24 hours of a race. One researcher admitted the 5 µg/ml level was “generous.”

Another issue is the drop to 2 µ/ml, which according to research allows no safety margin. A report on medication recommendations submitted in September to the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission showed that 20 horses given 2 grams of Bute intravenously had plasma concentrations ranging from 0.5 µ/ml to 2.1 µ/ml. That means even if the 24-hour rule is followed, 5% (1 of 20, according to the study) of the horses given Bute according to the guidelines could wind up with a positive test. If racetracks suddenly see a spike in Bute positives with trainers getting fined and suspended, is that good for the sport and has it protected any horses? You could argue the average sports fan doesn’t distinguish between Bute and steroids when hearing about drug positives in horse racing. A drug positive is seen as cheating. Arthur said the predicted rash of positives is unlikely because a margin of error is built into the testing. No one is getting a positive for a 2.1 µ/ml test result. In California, for example, the lowest Bute positive is 5.29 µ/ml.   

There would be changes in when and how much Bute could be given with the rule change. For the lower threshold to work, horsemen would have to give 2 grams of Bute 36 hours before a race or give only 1 gram of Bute 24 hours out, according to Dr. Larry Soma, who did the research review for the RMTC.

Without question, Bute and other NASAIDs help horses in training. But do we really need them on race day? Most vets will say it’s better to give a horse time off rather than medication. It also seems odd for the U.S. racing industry to fight over a difference of 3 µ/ml when the rest of the world sets its raceday standard for Bute at zero. There are differences between European and American racing. Europe has mostly turf races, fewer starts, and scaled-back winter flat racing. Australia does race year-round, however, and the collective rate of catastrophic breakdowns in the major European racing countries and Australia is 0.6 per 1,000 starts. In the U.S. it’s 2 per 1,000 starts. We allow medication on race day. Other countries don’t.

It appears the time has come, for the good of the horse, to scrutinize our own racing calendar, stop squabbling over a few micrograms, and push the permissible level of Bute to zero. 


Leave a Comment:

James Brown

I raced my thoroughbreds for 30 years without Bute or Lasix. I did begin to use Bute because all the other trainers did...however, my horses didn't run any different. I did find Bute to be helpful as a therapy.  If all horses ran 'clean' it would be a better sport.  Good luck getting it passed. Sorta like banning indoor smoking.  

05 Oct 2010 6:11 PM

I completely agree that the level for Bute should be set to Zero and am surprised that isn't what is being discussed at these meetings.  As a Canadian, we have no tolerance for Bute this side of the border.  However, many owners and trainers are quick to send their problematic horses south simply so they can be medicated to mask their problems and get into the entries sooner.  Money is at the forefront of everyone's priority list rather than the safety and welfare of the horse as well as jockeys and exercise riders.  

The industry is at a crucial point and needs to start making some positive moves in the right direction.  This would certainly be one of them.

05 Oct 2010 6:21 PM
Mike Relva

Good article,I agree.

05 Oct 2010 6:34 PM

The simplest solution would be to eliminate ALL drugs like the rest of the freakin' world. Why is that so hard to implement?

05 Oct 2010 7:15 PM

No meds at all!  Sometimes it's not the best horse or best trainer but the best vet that makes the difference.  We see it every day in the claiming races.  Trainer A claims horse X from trainer B.  B's been doing quite well with X but A can't get X to finish a race.  Training is training.  There's not much difference between A and B's method of training.  The difference is the meds and vet!

05 Oct 2010 7:33 PM
James A. Jarrell

Please , Ban the use of all drugs on race day. We see a horse break down today and run and win 10 days later, Whats going on? We the betting public can not know what the trainer is shooting into his horse.

05 Oct 2010 7:41 PM

Absolutely nothing good can come out of giving a horse Bute and asking them to perform a strenuous physical activity--nothing good there.  I give Bute to my 27 year old mare who has athritis in her hind ankle--What in the heck are they doing giving this stuff to thoroughbreds before they race.?  The horsey drug addiction in this country has got to come to an end.  No wonder the breed has evolved to become fragile, weak-boned, short-winded horses who have essentially lost their most important asset as well--stamina.  If a horse comes back from a race with blood pouring out their nostrils because they bled,  that horse should be retired from racing and not permitted to reproduce offspring for racing. Instead, the trainer is permitted give the horse lasix, send him to the starting gate, then to the breeding shed,  after the horse suffers some type of condylar fracture of the cannon bone,  and is retired to pass on all those great qualities.  When does it END???

06 Oct 2010 1:14 AM

Anything that masks pain/injury on race day should be banned. No horse should be forced to run that is compromised by injury.

Research indicates toxicity and equine gastric-ulcer problems are related to over-use, prolonged use.  Dehydrated (can you say lasix) horses are especially compromised.

Phenylbutazone Side Effects (besides breaking down while running compromised): Ulcers in mouth and GI tract. Less-common: renal damage, bleeding disorders and protein loss.

06 Oct 2010 6:35 AM

Forget Bute...essentially an aspirin.  What we really need to see is considerably less usage of  dexamethasone and other "normalizers."  

06 Oct 2010 7:04 AM
Prudence Adamson

removing bute is cruel

06 Oct 2010 8:39 AM

What a Joke...

06 Oct 2010 9:24 AM

Trainers are fighting this because a lot of them will go out of business if they can't run their sore horses. Needing more research is hogwash. Bute has been used for years and everyone knows its effects. They are just trying to stall. I have no problem with bute during training to ease the aches and pains, but it has no business on race day, PERIOD.

06 Oct 2010 9:52 AM
Bill at

There is no raceday bute or lasix in the Hambletonian for trotters - yet winning times have improved for the past 40 years, all while Derby horses get drugged up and run times equal to the 1950's winners.

Hmm. Tell me again how bute and lasix 'help' horses?

06 Oct 2010 9:54 AM
KY Horseman

"removing bute is cruel" - Prudence Adamson

Are you mad?  So essentially you are saying that masking a horse's ailment and then making it run around a race track at 40mph with the risk of further injury is absolutely humane and kind.

I'm sorry but your comment is 'nuts'.

06 Oct 2010 10:05 AM
Big Lou

I used to give bute to my horses just after they come back from a race.

06 Oct 2010 10:28 AM

The proposed rule change, however, has some problems, according to members of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and the California Thoroughbred Trainers...

[quote from article]

Lets see now, where did I put my mini Stradivarius??

06 Oct 2010 10:33 AM

Eric, I am simply chiming in with so many other responders: we must eliminate drugs from racing.  DanceSpell said it best; we are ruining the breed and the sport.

06 Oct 2010 10:43 AM

i am hardly a fan of bute.  Yet the article as posted merely confirms the complaints of the trainers--no science in that it makes conclusion after conclusion on unsubstantiated "fact".  bute is the "most studied".  as usual, out good vets study everything but what is relevant.  more need stand up to the baying hounds against therapeutic meds.  bute is a pain masking agent and should be banned. but that is opinion instead of science.

06 Oct 2010 11:18 AM

Removing Bute is cruel?? You're delusional..  If a horse needs bute on raceday they shouldn't be running period.  No one is saying you cannot administer it when needed.  Allowing a horse to run while injured and risking it's CRUEL.   Same with Dex.. pussyfooting around with the tolerances only gives trainers a challenge to find a way to beat the system.. zero tolerance on raceday puts everyone on a level playing field within the country as well as the rest of the racing world.

06 Oct 2010 1:00 PM

i think anabilic is ok to remove them ,but taking lasix away will only hurt bleeders!!and bute is not a big like taking an aspirin

06 Oct 2010 1:36 PM
Dr Drunkinbum

Great article. Keep up the good work. Zero is where the Bute level should be for horses that are racing. It not only covers up injuries that lead to breakdowns, but breaks down the body itself, weakening tissues and bones. The industry doesn't need scientific proof, just commons sense and decency. There is no reason for horses to be losing their lives this way.

06 Oct 2010 1:52 PM

Simple solution- no drugs on race day, period.  

Stop racing 15-18 month old horses and calling them "2 year olds". They are babies that are still growing.  If they did, you might not have so many sore,lame horses that need drugs to stay in training.

I differ on the cause of breakdowns in the U.S. vs. the rest of the racing world. Too many races is not the problem-especially with Grade 1 and Grade 2 horses. If they get past 14 -20 races, they are considered "heavily raced."

Seabiscuit was started over 75 times and came back from a serious injury to race and win again.

That is what one would consider "heavily raced".

06 Oct 2010 2:03 PM

No medication sounds good- BUT- would you like to go to work with a headache and no be allowed to take an aspirin.  The nature of this business is not natural to a horse.  We are asking them to carry 115-120 pounds on their backs and go at a speed over an extended distance of ground.  They were not designed to do this.  If you want to eliminate pains and strains you need to eliminate horse racing.  If you are going to ask these horses to perform, the kind thing to do is take the discomfort away.  Turning a horse out sounds like a great idea until you look at the economics of turning one out and bring it back to race performance fitness.  You are looking at 4 0r $5000 by the time you get them back in shape.  You think you have a horse shortage now!  This needs to be looked at from all angles.  There is a time to help a horse out with medication and a time to turn out.  As a trainer you need to know the difference.

06 Oct 2010 2:06 PM

And a heartfelt AMEN! Bute has no place in racing. If he needs bute, give him time off to heal. I still maintain (as one with veterinary training) that bute increases bleeding, which leads to use of Lasix, which leaches minerals (think calcium) out with the excess pee. Result: lowered blood calcium levels, which the body will try to correct by removing calcium from storage. Where is it stored? In the bones! I think, given the number of catastrophic breakdowns due to bone fractures, that the last thing we need is calcium being removed from the bones. Hey, if the Euros can do it, so can we. And if that's one of the up-sides of turf racing, maybe we should be readjusting our thinking. For the good of these wonderful, loyal, hard-working creatures who do whatever we ask of them.

06 Oct 2010 2:55 PM
Standardbred Trainer

At one time, all my horses raced on Bute. I  started racing them in a state that prohibited Bute and they all raced just as well if not better.

I also say level the playing field and get rid of all  medication. Too many good people, including trainers, have been forced out of the buisiness by the "chemists" that call themselves trainers. Some of the racing jusidictions are a joke. They have crimes with no punishments. I could go on and on and unless something is done quickly, racing will be doomed.

06 Oct 2010 5:01 PM
Robin from Maryland

No drugs-nothing on race day.  Agree with several of the bloggers, if a horse needs bute for pain or soreness than administer it and scratch the race.  If we go to zero tolerance than perhaps in a decade or so we can improve the overall soundness of the breed.  But it will take some time friends.  Can the industry afford the wait???  Doubt it.

06 Oct 2010 10:06 PM

Bute does not cause breakdowns, Trainers that run crippled horses cause breakdowns... I could give you trainers names right now, that have broke down horses in the past 2 months and it wasnt because bute. Bute wont mask a horse that has ankles the size of watermelons.

06 Oct 2010 11:00 PM

ZERO TOLERANCE for DRUGS used on horses, the rest of the world does not allow it and we should not either.  Safety for the horse and jockey should be enough to convince everyone involved. We are also breeding horses who have known problems which can not be good for the "Sport of Kings".  Cheating is cheating and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

07 Oct 2010 9:22 AM

I have raced horses on and off bute and it really doesn't make much difference in their performance. It will not make a lame horse sound. It may help some minor aches and pains but it is not what is responsible for catastrophic breakdowns.

My fear is that if the option of using bute is taken away from horsemen then they will migrate towards the use of much more potent illegal and undetectable drugs such as cobra venom.

I honestly wish the regulators and racing chemists would focus their attention on the illegal undetectable agents and stop messing around with the legal therapeutic agents which have been around for decades without causing any problems

07 Oct 2010 10:31 AM

This is for my friend Toral, that assures that when a trainer claims a horse and improve it, it basically because he uses drugs, well I'm a 67% off the claim trainer, and i can guarantee you, most of the horses i have claim, are from "trainers" that do not know, how many legs a horse have!!!!, Bute is not the worst enemy of a horse, it has a therapeutic use, and i assure you it will not make a lame horse fit to race, no matter if you give them 2, 5 or 10 u/ml, so i advice you to know what you are talking about before you go into a blog and claim that every trainer is a cheater...

07 Oct 2010 12:40 PM

As a trainer for 20+years I used my share of bute. I got a different out look on it when I had one show blood in his stool with just three weeks of 2 pills a day  and 3 after works trying to get him to the races without having to tap a knee! The lesser of two evils? Today I think we would be better of without bute, but raceday lasix to keep one from bleeding I feel is only humane. I don't believe once every 2 to 3 weeks on race day would cause any calcium loss in horses. It's not like they would be getting it every day!

07 Oct 2010 7:36 PM


That level of unsoundness should have alerted the track vets! However recent studies have shown that a high percentage of breakdowns show pre-existing injuries at the same site. Bute would mask those ouchy signs. But the biggest thing about Bute is the bleeding to Lasix connection and potential calcium inbalance. And that definitely would increase the chance of breakdowns. Bute is a therapeutic drug and really helps horses heal in comfort. It just doesn't belong in horses competing, who are supposed to be sound.

07 Oct 2010 8:52 PM
c'mon man

You want to compare Bute to Advil and than want it lowered and banned....Is Advil illegal? Look at every other sport in the country Advil is not lowered or banned there. If you did a survey of 500 random athletes in every sport, 490 of them will say at some point before or after a game they popped some advil or probably something stronger. Bute when given at the level its at now, will allow horses to continue to train and run through little aches and pains. Whoever has the delusion that Bute is what is masking horses getting past the State vet is clueless. Furthermore, eliminating Bute, than you might as well become like Monmouth and run two or three days (if your lucky) a week, it will be the end of racing 5 days a week. As far as only running your horses when they are 100% healthy and sound, ask the racing offices around the country why they constantly harrass you to enter and run your horses to fill a race, and don't use the races you are eligible for when your horse is ready to run. This may be considered a rant, but take it from someone on the inside, this is ridiculous.

08 Oct 2010 7:54 AM


I would have to agree on that point, as long as it was only on raceday. But sometimes it seems Lasix is given as routinely as putting on the bridle. Do we now have so many bleeders? I remember looking at a racecard (just as a matter of interest) and saw that out of that entire card, with fields of 5+ in each race, there were only 2 horses all day who ran without Lasix. Given on raceday only to a horse who does have a bleeding problem, no, it probably wouldn't cause much, if any, calcium loss. If used more often, the losses could be at least a part of the problem. I do know (as someone from the inside) that before Bute was legal, horses still got to the races and racecards filled - and in those days, most of them had more starts in their racing lives. I don't like meds in racing, but I also think the breakdown situation has many factors and can't be attributed to any single one of them.

08 Oct 2010 11:59 PM

Eric - As a racing fan and admirer of the wonderful thoroughbreds that give us humans so much pleasure with their power, courage and beauty - Thank You for your article on this most important issue that impacts our racing athletes.  I think it is an oxymoron by the powers that be in racing - owners, trainers, some vets - who say 'The biggest problem is little or no research exists as it relates to the rule change....' Also written was 'decades of research have been conducted as to how Bute works inside a horse....'  If the decades of research show that Bute, as well as other medications, have a negative impact on the internal organs and skeleton of the horse - who cares as to how it relates to the rule change?!  I as a fan could care less how the research affects the rule change! I agree with the ARCI, ..., and The Jockey Club that the powers that be are stonewalling to preserve their status quo.  In my book, those are owners, trainers and vets who DON'T really care about horses and their well-being - their interest is MONEY!  Flunexin and ketoprofen should be done away with if their levels are too low already!  Hand the owners who request their trainers and vets (track vets also) to administer these chemicals such stiff fines - $50,000-$100,000 - with suspensions of a year or more, or have their licenses revoked.  Whether they are top trainers, or the bottom feeders - they should be driven out of the industry, because they are damaging innocent animals who do their bidding, as well as ruining the sport.  These people give racing a bad image and name and bring PETA and other humane organizations down on their heads.  Sanctions like those would be powerful motivators to end/deter this INHUMAN PRACTICE.

If a horse is hurting he SHOULD NOT BE TRAINING - PERIOD!  Remember Tuscan Evening, she gave her life training!

Breeders and pin hookers who breed and sell horses that have been compromised by the use of these drugs should be called on the carpet and face sanctions as well, as they needlessly continue producing unsound progeny who in turn are raced, injured, retired early (if they survive) and produce more of the same. It is a vicious circle and needs serious attention.  Perhaps the result going forward would be fewer unsound offspring with less birth defects?

I read with interest the B-H feature whose content was an interview with several pinhookers who discussed their criteria for buying and selling young horses.  Basically they talked about the physical faults they would accept and the  impact of those issues on the horses ability to run and win.  I thought it was appalling - they are putting some young horse at risk of experiencing life threatening injuries.  Would it not be better to find them a life outside of racing where the risks would be reduced?

I'm tired of being at the races and watch a black or some other color screen erected 40 feet away from me, as a fallen horse is being put out of its misery before the finish line.  It strikes at our hearts to see a horse go down while in a race (which I have witnessed)and watch as the equine ambulance pulls up to take them away - if the horse is not first or second tier  runner you will never know whether they were hospitalized or put down.  It is an ignoble end to a Noble Being!

Unless it has already been done by one of the top Equine hospitals, it is time to investigate through controlled studies the genetic damage these medications and chemicals have inflicted on our equines - whether they be thoroughbreds, standardbreds, etc.

I love horses and horse racing - I don't want horse racing to disappear, because the humans involved do have the character and ethics to do what is in the true interest of the horse. I'd like these most beautiful and courageous athletes to have a healthy life and a level playing field!  If you don't love the horse you don't belong in his universe!

The Europeans have been leading the way on this issue.  It is time America follows their lead.  The lives of our horses command it!

I'm very passionate about the long-term welfare of our equines!

09 Oct 2010 11:11 AM
Mark near Newmarket

Horses should race free from all medication.  If a horse needs drugs then it must have a medical condition that requires treatment.  If this is the case it should not be racing.  One of your earlier commentators suggested that racing horses on medication was a kindness becuase of the effort we demand of them. What an absurd notion! Pain is a warning that something is wrong.  Facilitating the continuation of strenuous exercise by masking pain risks worsening the condition and increasing discomfort and suffering No more science is needed. It is a welfare issue, an ethical issue, it is wrong; simple. Perhaps for once the US should follow a British and Eurpean lead.

12 Oct 2010 6:32 PM
Ky Boss Mare

Great article!

14 Oct 2010 7:14 PM
Red Justinn

Like what you say about Bute but would like someone to say why we are so different from the rest of the world when it comes to drugs for our horses. 1) Are we barbarians? 2)Are we less humane? 3) Are we more interested in cashing than in the welfare of our horses?

Please ask trainers and owners in other countries their opinions.

17 Oct 2010 8:02 PM
Diego Silva

It's a simple thing. Do it like here in Brazil, come to a middle term, you only allow meds for any race but LISTED, G3, G2 and G1. As mentioned here previously, the sore 9YO claimer will have to stop racing without it, but have med free BLACKTYPE races will make the selection of the top horses be as it should MED FREE. Keep med for the low level races and BAN from BLACKTYPE, it will keep the industry running and will split the really naturally good from the rest and the good MED FREE horses will be more in the breeding shed making another good to the industry breed more sound horses...

22 Oct 2010 11:51 AM

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